The head of the Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmud ‘Abbas has had a major and unprecedented falling out with the former head of the Preventive Security Service Muhammad Dahlan. A number of factors, internal and external, have led to the conflict, with each deploying a variety of means and methods to seize control of Fatah and the PA, and the decision-making process in the two organizations.
It is not expected of Dahlan to stop his ambitious attempts to assume leadership of Fatah and the PA, especially with the presence of a regional climate supporting his bid. However, ‘Abbas continues to hold many strong cards both inside and outside Fatah, while the popular base and other Palestinian factions continue to perceive Dahlan negatively or at least, have reservations about him. This weakens his chances in reaching leadership positions at the level of the Palestinian people. If the two sides de-escalate and make a deal, this deal would have little chance to succeed and to be sustained.
The relationship between Mahmud ‘Abbas and Muhammad Dahlan turned from an alliance based on mutual interests, into a bitter falling out. This was a unique case within the pro-peace camp, and had repercussions on the situation within Fatah, and on the overall Palestinian situation.
It was in Tunisia that Mahmud ‘Abbas first met young Muhammad Dahlan, member of the Fatah Youth Organization who had come from the Gaza Strip (GS) during the first Intifadah that began in late 1987. The relationship would then expand and deepen whenever Palestinian-Israeli negotiations extended, or whenever the two men took sensitive positions within the structure of the PA.
Many developments led to higher cooperation or even alliance between ‘Abbas and Dahlan. Following the second Intifadah, which began in September 2000, and the failure of the Camp David Summit in reaching a new Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement, there was an American need to contain and then eliminate Yasir ‘Arafat. While ‘Arafat was forced to cede part of his powers under U.S. pressure, and appoint ‘Abbas as prime minister in 2003, Dahlan led a popular and media campaign in the summer of 2004 against ‘Arafat. In November 2004, ‘Arafat died in mysterious circumstances, and there were many indications that he had been poisoned, after his inner circle was infiltrated. ‘Abbas assumed the post of president after that, while Dahlan’s influence grew stronger.
On the other hand, many factors contributed to the tension between ‘Abbas and Dahlan, including Hamas’s military takeover of GS in June 2007, after defeating Muhammad Dahlan and his supporters, pushing him to flee to the West Bank (WB). Furthermore, ‘Abbas found out that Dahlan had been meeting secretly with Fatah leaders in the WB, to discuss ‘Abbas’s ouster on the grounds that the latter is weak. Dahlan was also making sharp criticisms of ‘Abbas’s sons, accusing them of misappropriating public funds, and abusing their father’s office. Dahlan also recruited and armed youth groups in several areas of the WB, and attempted to infiltrate the Presidential Guard.
At that point, ‘Abbas decided to demote Dahlan. He reshuffled a number of security posts, fired members of the Presidential Guard, activated legal cases against corruption, and put pressure on Fatah leaders to keep their distance from Dahlan. Finally, ‘Abbas expelled Dahlan from the Central Committee of the Fatah movement on 11/6/2011. The results of investigations with Dahlan were publicized in the media, to portray him as a corrupt individual. This forced Dahlan into exile, in the United Arab Emirates, where he worked as a security advisor to a prince from the ruling family. Dahlan kept a low profile for the next two years.
Several months ago, Dahlan returned strongly to public work in the Palestinian arena. Dahlan entered into an even more bitter conflict with Mahmud ‘Abbas. Dahlan has returned because some Arab regimes want to benefit from his experience and capabilities to confront the Islamists, especially in those countries that witnessed political, revolutionary, and social changes that toppled regimes, like Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia.
Because of that role, a number of Arab regimes hostile to political Islam cultivated a positive image of Dahlan. He also managed to improve ties with the Americans and Europeans and other powers, while using several media outlets in his war against Mahmud ‘Abbas. Dahlan found that ‘Abbas had many weaknesses that he could exploit, including for example the declining role of Fatah, the lack of progress in the peace process, the PA’s financial troubles, ‘Abbas’s lack of charisma that ‘Arafat enjoyed, in addition to ‘Abbas’s declining popularity.
Dahlan believes that becoming the head of the PA is a path that passes through Fatah, and that becoming head of Fatah is a path that passes through the Central Committee. For this reason, Dahlan expanded his activities in Lebanon, Jordan, and GS, where he spent millions of dollars on humanitarian and social projects through his wife Jalila, under the cover of an Emirati charity chaired by the wife of a senior Emirati official. Dahlan also stepped up his war on ‘Abbas for the same purpose, after many Arab efforts led by Egypt and the UAE failed to convince ‘Abbas to reinstate Dahlan.
‘Abbas started to feel the ground moving beneath his feet: Dahlan has been pulling hundreds of young Fatah members to his side; Dahlan was received by Field Marshal ‘Abdul Fattah al-Sisi; and President Barack Obama recently remarked that “‘Abbas is getting older.” This prompted ‘Abbas to escalate his attacks on Dahlan in the media, accusing him of assassinating Yasir ‘Arafat and Hamas leader Salah Shehadeh.
The Struggle for Fatah:
Regardless of personal considerations and narrow interests in relation to the spat between ‘Abbas and Dahlan, the conflict has other dimensions related to who controls Fatah, which has an important Palestinian role, and is the heart of the PLO and the PA in the WB. Fatah is also present in many countries, led by Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, three countries with major Palestinian refugee populations.
Fatah also endorses the path of recognizing Israel and negotiations, and defends security cooperation with the Israelis. Consequently, controlling Fatah and its organizational structure would be a major gain at the popular, political, and official levels, to pass any political deal or accord in the context of the peace process. Regionally speaking, controlling Fatah at this moment also consolidates ranks in the ongoing confrontation with Islamist forces and resistance factions.
No doubt, the conflict between ‘Abbas and Dahlan reflects the depth of the crisis within Fatah’s political and organization structures. While the supporters of ‘Abbas blame Dahlan for what has happened, the pro-Dahlan camp argue that the decline in Fatah’s popularity and of its strength took place during the tenure of Mahmud ‘Abbas.
Thus, the conflict between ‘Abbas and Dahlan shows that Fatah is undergoing a deep crisis; a crisis of leadership after ‘Arafat’s death, a crisis of a flaccid organization, and a crisis of weak strategic vision, because of the failure of the peace process and Fatah’s inability to return to armed resistance, not to mention the weak performance of the PA in the WB with the ongoing financial crises and the poor performance of the government apparatus.
Even if the conflict is settled in favor of either party, there are no real indications that whoever controls Fatah would be able to rescue it at the popular and political levels, improve its performance in the open-ended negotiation process, or save Fatah’s administrative and organizational structure.
The fact that some parties have been pushing Muhammad Dahlan to seize power in Fatah is related to the prevailing regional climate, which is pushing figures that are more acceptable to the Americans, Israelis, and Europeans, as well as the “moderate” Arab regimes, to take control of the decision-making of countries in the region, including Palestine.
Fatah enjoys a high degree of flexibility, and has the ability to manage differences and diversity within its ranks, and reach accords according to the capabilities, influence, and popularity of the players within the movement. This gives a chance to a settlement to the problems between ‘Abbas and Dahlan. However, Fatah-led and Arab efforts for reconciliation between ‘Abbas and Dahlan required reinstating the latter into Fatah, something that ‘Abbas refused categorically despite strong financial inducements. Nevertheless, reconciliation remains a possibility. There are some indications that after the most recent media war between the two men, reconciliation efforts resumed, but positive signs have yet to emerge, at least publicly.
2. The Conflict Continues
The bitter conflict between the two men suggests that it will be very difficult to implement reconciliation between them, because any reconciliation could lead in the long run to driving Mahmud ‘Abbas out of power, and would give Dahlan the chance to become the leader of the PLO, Fatah, and the PA. Some Palestinian circles believe that Mahmud ‘Abbas’s character, which tends not to tolerate or forgive opponents, does not allow for a genuine reconciliation with Dahlan. Meanwhile, Dahlan’s hastiness and fondness for risk-taking will not help reach a durable consensus either. This makes the prospect of continued conflict a likely one.
3. De-escalation and Truce
It is possible that this conflict would be suspended, with attempts to contain it away from being an open conflict in politics and the media. One reason is that it has done a lot of damage to the reputations of both ‘Abbas and Dahlan, weakened the PA’s prestige, and publicized the vices of the two men. ‘Abbas, who fears a repeat of the scenario of toppling and assassinating ‘Arafat, does not accept the idea of reinstating Dahlan.
Recently, ‘Abbas worked on improving his image at the political, media, and popular levels. He thus rejected Kerry’s peace plan, held on to the prisoner swap deal, and signed 12 applications to join international conventions. Meanwhile, Dahlan’s “house is made of glass,” as many of his opponents believe, and cannot enter into confrontations with ‘Abbas or others. For this reason, Dahlan might favor not going ahead with this pattern of confrontation.
The conflict between ‘Abbas and Dahlan is a struggle for influence, it is not about politics, or defending the rights of the Palestinian people, or even promoting Palestinian steadfastness against the occupation. This damages Fatah and its organizational environment, which is a manifestation of the crises in its structure, leadership, and political track.
Dahlan will most likely continue his bid to seize the keys of decision-making in Fatah, and will try to take advantage of the current Arab environment as much as possible for more maneuverability and influence. However, ‘Abbas still has the ability to curb Dahlan’s aspirations given his influence within Fatah, and popularity within Fatah and Palestine, and also given his position as head of the PA and the PLO, which are still accepted in the Arab world and internationally. Dahlan himself also has many problems, and has a long journey ahead to change his negative image among broad Palestinian popular and factional segments.
1. Returning to regulatory frameworks, and seeking an institutional/constitutional solution to internal problems.
2. Giving precedence to national priorities and the higher interests of the Palestinian people over other factional and personal calculations.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Mr. Ra’fat Murrah for authoring the original text on which this strategic assessment was based.