Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas went to the United Nations last month and brought his people one step closer to statehood. But amid all the fanfare, Western diplomats quietly conceded that the General Assembly vote to upgrade the Palestinians' U.N. mission was not simply a step taken to advance their national project. It also reflected a desire to counter Hamas's growing influence, particularly after the Gaza-based terrorist group claimed victory in its war with Israel in November.
In the overwhelming vote (138 to 9) to confer nonmember observer status on the Palestinians, the international community may have outsmarted itself. Abbas's next steps are entirely unclear -- he has threatened to pursue membership in the International Criminal Court, which he could then use as a bludgeon against Israel, but that tactic could take years to bear fruit.
The aging Abbas, however, may not have years. The Palestinian leader is 77 years old, a heavy smoker, and an incessant traveler. He reportedly underwent treatment for prostate cancer a decade ago, and in 2010 he was admitted six times to a Jordanian hospital for unspecified health reasons. In short, he's not a picture of perfect fitness. This raises the inconvenient question: Who will follow in his footsteps?
Right now, the answer is Hamas. According to Palestinian Basic Law, Article 37, if the presidency of the Palestinian Authority becomes vacant "the Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council shall temporarily assume the powers and duties of the Presidency of the National Authority for a period not to exceed sixty (60) days, during which free and direct elections to elect a new President shall take place."
As it turns out, the current speaker is none other than Aziz Dweik. In January 2006, the last time Palestinians held legislative elections, Dweik ran and won on Hamas's Change and Reform list. When Hamas emerged with a majority after that vote, he was sworn in as speaker.
Who is this leader waiting in the wings? He has spent two decades being pursued by Israel. In 1992, Dweik was one of 415 Hamas members exiled to Lebanon by Israel for their involvement in the nascent terrorist group. Following the 2006 kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, the Israelis arrested him for being a member of Hamas. In June 2009, Dweik was released from prison, but was rearrested this January for "involvement in terrorist activities." He was released again, only months ago, in July.
Of course, Dweik isn't a shoo-in. Succession does not always proceed according to law, and the PLO could still appoint someone from its own ranks if Abbas could no longer lead that body. However, a power struggle is a recipe for another ugly clash between the PLO and Hamas -- perhaps a reprise of the bloody 2007 civil war, in which Hamas seized the Gaza Strip. And right now, Abbas's health and political fortunes are the only things standing in the way of this chaotic scenario.
Abbas's political standing could be just as disconcerting as his advancing age. Since Hamas drubbed Abbas's secular Fatah party in the 2006 election and pushed his security forces out of Gaza in 2007, Abbas has leaned heavily on the United States and Israel for military, intelligence, and financial assistance to maintain his tenuous grip on the West Bank. His government, meanwhile, has become ossified, eroding his support among many West Bankers.