ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, will turn 81 in a couple of months. His critics say he is clinging to power. His supporters see an indispensable man. Abbas tells foreign visitors he is weary.
The Palestinian leader’s elected term in office was scheduled to end seven years ago. Yet on Abbas goes, presiding over a stalemate with the Jewish state; fighting with the Islamist movement Hamas; and trying to manage a status quo that American diplomats call unsustainable and Palestinians call apartheid: the 48-year Israeli military occupation.
Quietly, but cognizant of the political life span of any one leader, Palestinian politicians are jockeying for the top job.
One of a handful of names on a short list of possible successors to Abbas is Mohammed Dahlan, 53, a former chief of security in Gaza and protege of Yasser Arafat who lives in exile in the United Arab Emirates.
Viewed as an archrival to Abbas, Dahlan was kicked out of the Fatah political party, which Abbas leads, in 2011. He was accused of corruption and defamation, charges he denies. From his perch in the oil-rich Persian Gulf, Dahlan plots his comeback.
Dahlan has friends in high places who can write big checks to charities that support Palestinian causes and that Dahlan helps administer. His detractors say he lacks broad support on the street back home. But he may have enough clout to emerge as a power broker.
Dahlan is close to Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Sheik Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who has disbursed $50 million in aid to families needing temporary shelter in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas fought a devastating 50-day war with Israel in 2014.
Dahlan is also friends with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the country’s former top general whose regime has kept Gaza’s border with Egypt closed for most of the past year. Both men share a deep dislike of Hamas and its founding organization, the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas has branded Dahlan a spy or an Israeli pawn because he was part of past peace negotiations.
Dahlan recently sat down with The Washington Post at his villa in Abu Dhabi. He wore designer jeans and a white T-shirt that showed off his gym-trained physique. His aides came and went; most have been with Dahlan since his days in Gaza, where he was born.
Dahlan sees the Israeli-
Palestinian conflict through a lens of personalities, and he blames Abbas, President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the impasse.
Dahlan asserted that Obama made “no real efforts to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinian people,” arguing that the United States never pressed Israel to make tough concessions, such as halting the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, on lands that Palestinians want for a future state.
As for the Israeli leader, Dahlan said that Netanyahu can do what he wants because the Palestinian leadership is “compliant.”
He called Abbas a “failure” in that the senior leader has devoted 10 years to negotiations with nothing to show for it.
“No Palestinian in the past, present or future will be as easy with the Israelis as Abu Mazen,” Dahlan said, using Abbas’s popular nickname. The Palestinian leadership, he said, should end the “false game of negotiations” and suspend security coordination with the Israelis.
Palestinian police keep order in the 40 percent of the West Bank under their partial control; they keep armed men away from confrontations while Palestinian intelligence keeps an eye on Hamas and allows Israeli troops into Palestinian cities to make arrests.
Dahlan said that coordination must stop — until Israel gives the Palestinians something in return.
Israeli officials say threats to end security coordination are nothing more than a bluff. The arrangement, they say, protects the Palestinian Authority from Hamas and other antagonists and keeps the West Bank free of warlords and gangsters.
Governance of the Palestinian people has been split since 2007 between the militant Islamist movement Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the more moderate Fatah party in the West Bank. Dahlan said no progress is possible for the Palestinian cause until the political factions reconcile.
Dahlan called the years since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip “a big zero.”
“They cannot show that their rockets are the solution,” he said.
But Hamas is popular these days, both in Gaza and in the West Bank. Recent polling by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 51 percent of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank would vote for the leader of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, and just 41 percent for Abbas.
The third-most popular choice is Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison. A leader of the first and second Palestinian intifadas, or uprisings, Barghouti is considered a terrorist by Israel and the “Palestinian Nelson Mandela” by his supporters.
Dahlan appears among the third tier of presidential possibilities, pulling about 6 percent support.
“He has charisma and acts like a leader. He rose up from a Gaza refugee camp,” said Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a political scientist at al-Azhar University in Gaza. “He could achieve many things within a short time. He is one of the youngest Fatah leaders, in comparison with others.”
Dahlan demurs when asked if he wants to be the next president of the Palestinian Authority.
“President of what?” Dahlan said. “When I say I don’t want anything, it is because there is nothing” to be president of.
The most recent polls found that two-thirds of Palestinians think Abbas should resign. Youths, especially those who launched the months-long campaign of near-suicidal attacks on Israelis, are no longer listening. A majority of Palestinians now support the frequent knife attacks.
Dahlan said he is opposed to armed struggle against Israel. He says the current leaderless attacks are the product of hopelessness. He advocates “resistance with minimal losses.”
There are no plans for a succession of leadership and no elections scheduled, though balloting is years overdue. Dahlan talks a lot about reviving the Palestinian leadership, holding elections, bringing in young people. He complains that most of the leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization have been serving for 30 or 40 years or more.
“Youth must be involved. We must support youth to play their role in the society. We must build an authority and strengthen it,” Dahlan said. “We must hold legislative elections now.”
Booth reported from Ramallah.