Power Shifts Fuel Talk of Palestinian Regime Change

RAMALLAH (Reuters) -

Rumblings in Ramallah in recent weeks have raised expectations that Palestinian politics are in play, with 80-year-old President Mahmoud Abbas, in power for more than a decade, facing a mounting challenge to his leadership.

There is frequent speculation that Abbas, who was elected to a four-year term in 2005 and has not had to face a vote since then, is about to step down. He has confounded those predictions in the past and may well do so again.

But the degree of rumor-mongering and alliance-shifting over the past two months suggests change is in the air, or at least that agitation against his presidency is growing.

Earlier this month, Abbas unexpectedly dismissed the secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization and his effective number two, Yasser Abed Rabbo, who has been critical of his decision-making for some time.

In his place, the president appointed Saeb Erekat, a long-time adviser and occasional confidant who has been the chief negotiator with the Israelis for the past two decades.

Then, in a separate but related development, a Palestinian appeals court ruled that Mohammed Dahlan, a former official in the Fatah party who is now a rival to Abbas, was entitled to parliamentary immunity in a case brought against him by an anti-corruption body set up by the president.

That increases the likelihood that Dahlan, who fell from favor in 2011 and now lives in exile in the Gulf, could return to Ramallah to fight the charges, a move that would bolster his credentials as the main challenger to Abbas.

As if those moves and feints were not enough, Israeli media reported on Sunday that Abbas told confidants he would step down within two months.

The report was quickly dismissed by Palestinian officials, with Abbas’s spokesman telling Reuters it was “typical Israeli rumors” designed to destabilize Palestinian affairs.

It is not clear who the sources for the story were, but Israeli Interior Minister Silvan Shalom, who is responsible for the Palestinian file, held unannounced talks with Erekat in Jordan on Friday, a Palestinian official confirmed to Reuters.