Ahead of a planned meeting with US President Joe Biden on Friday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been back in the public eye in recent weeks, appearing at events including a trip to Algeria earlier in July, where he had a rare meeting with the leader of his Palestinian rival Hamas Ismail Haniyeh.
Images of the 87-year-old leader eased rumors last month that Abbas was seriously ill, but questions remain.
Abbas, who spent 17 years as president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), previously had prostate cancer, from which he recovered, and had two cardiac catheters in the past 10 years. He has been treated all over the world, in Jordan, Germany and the United States.
Information about Abbas’ health is shrouded in a high level of secrecy.
Abbas’s health has raised concerns locally, regionally and internationally as the question of who will succeed the Palestinian president remains unresolved.
“We are concerned to see how the Palestinian Authority dealt with the rumors earlier this month; there was a lack of transparency that left everything open to rumors and conspiracy theories,” a senior international diplomat working in the occupied West Bank, who did not want to be named, told Al Jazeera, “I’m worried about the West Bank; I can see Hebron, Nablus and Jenin not looking good and I would worry about possible chaos and then if Israel decides to get more involved there could be a lot of violence.
Abbas’ succession has also become a critical issue for his inner circle in light of intensifying competition among the leaders of Fatah, the party led by Abbas.
What happens when the presidency becomes vacant is unclear – the presidential election could mean a victory for Fatah’s rivals, Hamas.
Elections also create a host of other problems; Palestinians living in occupied East Jerusalem cannot participate because Israel will not let them, and the legacy of the 2007 fighting between Fatah and Hamas, which resulted in Fatah dominating the West Bank and Hamas in control of Gaza also complicates matters.
“The split between Fatah and Hamas and the issue of Jerusalem make it difficult to hold elections or a smooth legal transition of power from Abbas to his successor,” said Ghassan al-Khatib, a Palestinian political analyst and vice president of Birzeit University. “People are worried about what might come of the president’s position becoming vacant, and other Palestinian leaders disagree more than they agree.”
Former Palestinian Foreign Minister Nasser al-Kidwa blamed weak Palestinian institutions for the predicament.
“If the institutions – the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization – had remained strong, there would have been no anxiety,” al-Kidwa told Al Jazeera. “After [former Palestinian President] Yasser Arafat died in 2004, there was a Palestinian Legislative Council, a Palestinian National Council and the rule of law. Now there is neither law nor institutions, so people are worried.”
“There is no alternative to holding elections to choose the next president,” he added.
The results of a public opinion poll conducted in late June by the Palestinian Center for Politics and Research in Ramallah showed a significant drop in support for Abbas and increased calls for him to step down.
If a presidential election were held with Abbas and Haniyeh as candidates, only 49 percent of poll respondents said they would turn out to vote, with Haniyeh the choice of 55 percent of those who did, and Abbas attracting the support of only 33 percent .
Other Fatah stalwarts, such as Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Staye and Mohammed Dahlan, would also lose to Haniya.
However, there is one Fatah figure who has support – the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti.
Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison after being convicted in 2004 of “terrorism”, beat Haniya in the poll 61 percent to 34 and increased turnout to 66 percent, indicating his popularity.
Barghouti is considered the leader of the first and second Palestinian intifadas and remains popular despite being behind bars.
Barghouti’s younger brother, Muqbil, confirmed to Al Jazeera that Barghouti plans to run for the presidential election whenever it is held.
However, it is not certain that the 63-year-old will be released by the Israelis, as his popularity among Palestinians and the potential unifying effect around him are worrying for Tel Aviv.
The Israeli position
The question of Abbas’ successor is an issue of concern for Israel, which worries that Hamas may be able to take advantage.
“There is a lot of concern among the Israeli security and military services about what might happen after Abbas,” said David Hacham, a former adviser on Arab affairs at Israel’s defense ministry. “The security systems and the military have developed several scenarios, the most dangerous of which is the emergence of an armed conflict between the claimants to Abbas’s succession, leading to a state of security instability in the Palestinian territories.”
At the same time, Israel decided not to publicly demonstrate support for a particular candidate, knowing that any support would do the candidate more harm than good.
The reality, however, is that Israel’s support for either candidate would convince the US to back the figure and encourage support from Arab states as well.
A Hamas candidate, on the other hand, is one that Israelis would certainly not support. The movement’s victory in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections led to economic sanctions by Israel, the US and others.
Bassam Naim, a prominent member of the group, told Al Jazeera that his movement is calling for free presidential and legislative elections that will allow the Palestinian people to choose their future president and leader capable of resolving the conflict with Israel.
However, Naim did not want to go further than that.
“Hamas can nominate a figure for the Palestinian president if a presidential election is organized,” Naim said. “But right now it is premature to talk about a decision by the Hamas leadership in this regard.”