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Analysis: After Mahmoud Abbas

Palestinian Authority President Mhmoud Abbas - Oct 2009
There is no clear or easy successor to Mahmoud Abbas

By Jeremy Bowen
BBC Middle East Editor, Jerusalem

The words chosen by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, that he had "no desire" to stand for office again, seemed to suggest that he might allow his mind to be changed.

But what kind of shift in the political landscape would it take to rekindle his desire to be president?

Concessions from Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are not likely. He has refused months of American requests to freeze building for Jews throughout the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem. He won't change his mind - and destroy his own political position in Israel - just to keep Mr Abbas in his job.

President Abbas has become a vital part of America's strategy. His attempts to accommodate President Obama - especially by trying to shelve the UN's Goldstone report into Israeli and Palestinian war crimes in Gaza - caused him serious political damage at home that must have contributed to his decision.

If the Americans announced that their vision of a future Palestinian state corresponded pretty much exactly to that of Mr Abbas - in other words, with the 1967 borders, a capital in East Jerusalem, justice for Palestinian refugees and sovereign control of its borders and air space - then he might be persuaded to run again.

Political battle

But Mr Obama hasn't been able to get Israel to freeze settlement building, even for six months. Will he want to up the stakes?

MAHMOUD ABBAS
Born in Safed in British Mandate Palestine (now northern Israel) in 1935; studied law in Egypt and gained doctorate in Moscow
A founder member, with Yasser Arafat, of Palestinian political faction Fatah
Held security role within the PLO in the early 1970s
Appointed head of the PLO's department for national and international relations in 1980
Widely regarded as an architect of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords
In January 2005 elected president of the Palestinian Authority

It is not impossible, because sooner or later the Americans will have to say what kind of Palestinian state they have in mind. But he would touch off the mother of all political battles with Mr Netanyahu and his allies in the United States.

Mahmoud Abbas might stay in office for some time anyway. He has called elections for January, but his Palestinian rivals Hamas, the rulers of Gaza, say they would be illegal.

Not only would Hamas not take part, they say they will make it impossible for anyone else to do so either.

The body that supervises Palestinian elections has to decide between now and January whether an election that excludes Gaza should go ahead. Senior advisers to Mr Abbas expect that without Gaza the election would be postponed. And since the president is not threatening to resign before an election, that leaves him in office.

Possible successor

If an election does happen, and Mr Abbas doesn't stand, he has only one obvious successor in his Fatah movement.

He is Marwan Barghouti, the most charismatic member of the next generation of Fatah leaders.

Mahmoud Abbas rules himself out of January's elections

But he is serving five life sentences for murder in an Israeli jail.

Even in prison he is a considerable political figure - some people see him as a Palestinian Nelson Mandela in the making - and his supporters could put his name on the ballot.

Outside prison, no-one in Fatah makes a compelling case to be president.

Some Palestinians are so disenchanted with the politics of peacemaking they say they are not bothered who is president. In a recent opinion poll, the highest proportion showed the people who said they wouldn't vote at all.



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