The Prince: President Abbas’ successor?

Mohammed Dahlan, a former Fatah security chief, gestures in his office in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates October 18, 2016. Picture taken October 18, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

He’s been called Prince Charles. The parallel is obvious, an heir apparent long waiting to succeed a reigning leader. But there the parallel ends. Maybe is he some other kind of princemore like Niccolò Machiavelli’s leader who builds success upon action, rather than claims to virtue.

Mohammed Dahlan, dubbed the man most likely to succeed the ailing Palestinian Authority (PA) and PLO President Mahmoud Abbas, has had a long wait.

The wait started more than a decade ago under Abbas’s predecessor Yasser Arafat, but Dahlan appears to be a patient man. He began life in a refugee camp in Gaza, where he still retains some popularity. He cut his teeth in the first Intifada in the late 1980s, and later benefited from the patronage of Arafat to become Gaza’s first Palestinian security chief.

Presidential Qualities

At this juncture in their history, there are many qualities that Palestinians may well look for in a president. After nearly 50 years of Israeli occupation, the talents required of Abbas’ successor may have less to do with romantic notions of keffiyeh-clad freedom fighters than the ability to maneuver the corridors of power in foreign capitals, as well as to have a reputation for being politically ruthless at home.

Indeed, Dahlan knows the Israeli security mindset inside – he spent time in Israeli jails – and out. His command of regular security co-ordination with Israel gave him important insight into the ways in which security connects to Israeli politics domestically and in relation to its most important ally the US. Even his enemies begrudgingly acknowledge that Dahlan’s single-minded, tough approach to the “business of politics” match those of his Israeli opponents. Compared to his potential rivals Dahlan has matchless experience of the Israeli political and security universe, its inter-connectedness and the nuances of power within it.

If Palestinians want a leader who has sat at the negotiating table with Israelis and wrung concessions which others thought were improbable, then Dahlan may be their man. His robust and at times, aggressive, approach to politics chimes with a sensibility that has prevailed in both Israeli and American circles. Some say such a sensibility has flourished under Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has allegedly met with Dahlan in secret.

But Israel is also Dahlan’s Achilles heel. Many Palestinians – including those within his own Fatah movement as well as his enemies in Hamas – are well aware of how closely Mr. Dahlan worked with Israel and the U.S. in the past. Hamas regarded him as collaborating with Israel to destroy them. Dahlan acceded, at least in part, to an American plan to collapse Hamas in the Gaza Strip. But when the plan backfired spectacularly, Fatah turned on Dahlan, blamed him, and drove him into exile to the UAE.

Regional Sway

During his time away, Dahlan has not been idle. In the UAE he became the Security Advisor of Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, with a broad portfolio that put him in a position to garner a broad range of supporters in the Middle East, Europe and Africa. From his base in the UAE, he restored relations with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, so much so that by 2014, not long after el-Sisi took power in Cairo, legend had it that Dahlan had a “desk with his name on it” on the route into the President’s executive suite.

However, the residents of the Gaza Strip are yet to see a pay-off for this relationship. Egypt still hasn’t opened the Rafah border; a lifeline from Gaza to the Arab world.

Route to Succession

A senior Palestinian leader talking about Dahlan once reflected, “You know, in the past, outside actors thought they could make princes and put them onto thrones and turn them into Kings,’. “But”, he added, “Palestinian society does not easily accept such Princes and we have seen this with the case of Dahlan and his ejection from Gaza,”. For all his regional support, Dahlan still lacks a route to get him to the top spot in Fatah. Though Fatah is perennially weakened and dysfunctional many within its highest ranks, including President Abbas, still abhor Dahlan. He has tried to erode their control but they continue to block him.

Nevertheless, he still commands loyalty from a particular type of Fatah cadre in Gaza, and is winning fans in the increasingly lawless pockets of the West Bank. In Palestinian refugee camps across the region, his charity abounds – apparent in the causes supported by his wife. Arab Quartet powers are also pressing President Abbas to allow the rehabilitation of Dahlan; particularly important as Fatah prepares for its seventh congress and ponders a post-Abbas future.

Dahlan may yet find an alternative route to power but this will depend on reaching accommodation with Hamas. This could prove all the easier if Dahlan persuades Egyptian authorities to release Hamas leaders captured in 2015. This would be a confidence building measure that could change the game and cement the future for Dahlan and his ambition to transform from prince to king.