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The Telegraph
The Telegraph
16 Dec 2023

White House fears Palestinian president not capable of running Gaza

White House officials fear Mahmoud Abbas will be unable to lead Gaza after the war, even as Joe Biden continues to back a “revitalised” Palestinian Authority (PA) taking control.

The issue has dominated around-the-clock discussions in the White House, where senior officials have spent weeks frantically drafting proposals for how to run Gaza, sources familiar with the talks told The Sunday Telegraph.

America’s private push for Israel to conclude its offensive early in the new year has illuminated not only Joe Biden’s desire to end the war, but also his ideas for what comes next. 

It has also exposed a rift between Washington and Israel, with the two allies at odds over how they believe the enclave should be run after hostilities with Hamas cease.

Senior officials have been foregoing sleep as they work to game out plans that might be palatable to all parties involved.

For any to succeed, they stress, it must have the backing of Palestinians, Israel and their Arab neighbours – a high bar to clear given the PA’s rampant corruption and the growing popularity of Hamas in the West Bank.

Concerns abound over Mr Abbas, 88, the president of PA, who is now 18 years into an elected four-year term.

White House officials do not explicitly say Mr Abbas cannot remain in his position. But national security sources have signalled that behind the scenes the US is confronting the “biological reality” of the situation.

One former official said it was likely the administration would be “building up our relationship, and our interactions” with potential replacements.

Antony Blinken, left, said the US is under no illusion that resolving the war and peacekeeping will not be easy
Antony Blinken, left, said the US is under no illusion that resolving the war and peacekeeping will not be easy Credit: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

Dr Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said: “If your goal was stability and security, it’s always a bad idea to bet on an 88-year-old chain smoker.”

One alternative name circulating is Mohammed Dahlan, the former leader of Fatah in Gaza, who has been living in exile in the United Arab Emirates for the last decade.

Mr Dahlan is powerful, well-connected and particularly influential in the UAE – a key regional powerbroker – where he serves as a close adviser to Abu Dhabi’s powerful ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed.

He is said to have played a major role behind the scenes in the Abraham Accords, the 2020 normalisation treaty between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain.

This makes him more palatable to Israel, as does his role in the Oslo peace agreement.

But the extent of his popularity among Gazans is less clear. 

He has been accused of presiding over the torture of Hamas captives in the 1990s but denies this.

In a rare interview with the Economist in late October, Mr Dahlan dismissed rumours that he was being lined up as the next leader.

Salam Fayyad, a former PA prime minister, is reportedly favoured by some Egyptian and American officials to lead a new government in Gaza.

Emphasis on a ‘strong man’

Dr Rubin said while Fayyad is “popular” in the West, “behind the scenes, I think the emphasis is going to be on a strong man… and that’s where someone like Mohammed Dahlan comes in”.

He noted Mr Dahlan’s broad regional support and his strong ties with US intelligence officials.

One senior former national security official refused to be drawn on potential replacements for Mr Abbas, citing the sensitivities involved.

Smoke rises above Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip after an Israeli missile strike
Smoke rises above Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip after an Israeli missile strike Credit: SAID KHATIB/AFP

They stressed they would not want to suggest that “the United States is going to be choosing this leader”.

They said “what is probably happening behind the scenes, is that you have American officials asking very tough questions” for what comes next.

US discussions around Gaza’s future appear to accept that one, or several, regional powers will act as a guarantor for the PA.

Two security sources said Jordan, Egypt and the UAE would be critical, while “important conversations” were also occurring with Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

One or more of the countries could be called on to act as a “proxy to guarantee the peace and take charge” of rebuilding Gaza, one source added.

In addition to the governance of Gaza, the Biden administration’s post-war planning has two other components: reconstruction and security.

The White House hopes to gain support from the international community, particularly wealthy Arab neighbours, to pay for rebuilding schools, hospitals and other critical infrastructure.

Security remains one of the most intractable issues. 

Most Arab states are reluctant to provide their own troops, and Mr Biden has ruled out deploying US soldiers on the ground.

In the words of Ayman Safad, the Jordanian foreign minister, said: “What are the circumstances under which any of us would want to go and be seen as the enemy and be seen as having come to clean up Israel’s mess?”

International presence

However, Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has proposed a demilitarised Palestinian state, guaranteed by an international presence, “whether Nato forces, United Nations forces, or Arab or American forces”.

Mr Sisi’s suggestion has reportedly been given some consideration by the White House, with one senior official suggesting the status of Hamas would be a major factor in the final decision.

The prospect of a UN peacekeeping presence is unlikely to be backed by Israel, which has long felt the international body is biased against it.

Israeli politicians, including prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have shied away from discussing options for the day after in Gaza, insisting that the entire country is focused on the war effort.

But discussions about the future have entered the public discourse, with several influential newspapers running pieces about the need to look ahead.

Yedioth Ahronoth, one of Israel’s largest newspapers, said it favours an American plan to “hand over the keys” to Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE with cooperation with a “revitalised” PA.

Separately, the Israeli news website Walla cited two US administration officials saying Israel has shown greater willingness than it has in the past to discuss plans for Gaza’s future.

In public, however, senior Israeli officials have voiced scepticism about the involvement of the PA, while Washington has questioned Israel’s suggestion of a “buffer zone” inside the Gaza border.

Antony Blinken, America’s top diplomat, put it another way. 

“We have no illusions this is going to be easy,” he said during a recent visit to Tel Aviv.

But, he said, “the alternative – more terrorist attacks, more violence, more innocent suffering – is unacceptable.”