Foreign Policy

Arafat’s Nephew Is Coming for Abbas

Nasser al-Qudwa, a nephew of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, poses next to a portrait of Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Nov. 10, 2008. ABBAS MOMANI/AFP via Getty Images

Eighteen years ago, Mahmoud Abbas, then-Palestinian prime minister, was locked in a power struggle with iconic Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. At stake was control of Palestinian security forces vital to a U.S.-mediated Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, known as the Roadmap for Mideast Peace. Arafat and Abbas disagreed over which of them would control these forces, and Abbas grew increasingly frustrated with Arafat’s unwillingness to cede him any power. The rivalry negatively affected the—now stagnant—peace process and led to a schism inside the West Bank’s ruling Fatah party.

Fast forward to 2021. Abbas is president of the Palestinian Authority (PA)—a position he has held for more than 15 years after being elected to just a four-year term in 2005—and Palestinians are patiently awaiting a vote that could finally seal his fate. Whether the elections, slated for this May, July, and August, will be allowed to go ahead remains unclear. (Both Israel and the PA hold the cards.) But in the interim, Abbas is facing a challenge from the nephew of the very man he was at loggerheads with two decades ago.

Nasser al-Qudwa is not a household name in the Palestinian territories, but his recent decision to establish a new political movement is turning heads. The National Democratic Assembly, which runs under the slogan, “we want to change, we want to liberate, we want to build,” has attracted Palestinians of all strata in calling for an end to the rampant corruption and cronyism that have historically plagued the PA. The group stresses it is not a faction or party but rather a distinct political movement running an electoral list.

On March 31, the National Democratic Assembly joined forces with jailed militant Marwan Barghouti to run as an independent slate—called “Freedom”—in Palestine’s May 22 legislative elections. Barghouti is a veteran Fatah official who played a leading role in the Second Intifada and is currently serving five life sentences in Israel over charges that he orchestrated deadly attacks on Israelis. In poll after poll conducted in the Palestinian territories, the charismatic Barghouti has consistently shown that—should he run in the PA’s presidential elections—he would win.

Nasser al-Qudwa and Fadwa Barghouti

Nasser al-Qudwa and Fadwa Barghouti, Marwan Barghouti’s spouse, leave the Palestinian Central Elections Commission office after registering their joint list for the upcoming parliamentary election in the West Bank city of Ramallah on March 31. Nasser Nasser/The Associated Press

The merger raised the ire of Abbas, who has ruled by decree and without parliamentary oversight since 2007 and is concerned about where a reshuffled electoral list could land Fatah. In particular, the 85-year-old president wants to avoid a repetition of the party’s painful 2006 loss to Hamas. He believes that can only be accomplished if Fatah runs united and strong.

The “Freedom” slate—headed by Qudwa and Fadwa Barghouti, a lawyer and Marwan Barghouti’s spouse—isn’t the only breakaway Fatah list competing against Abbas’s traditional electoral slate. He will also have to face the “Future” list, which is sponsored by Mohammed Dahlan, a former Fatah security chief in Gaza who is currently living in exile in the United Arab Emirates. Abbas blames Dahlan for failing to stop Hamas’s 2007 takeover of the Gaza Strip and expelled him from Fatah in 2011 following accusations of embezzlement. Both men have been hurling allegations of corruption at each other ever since.

A poll by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that the Qudwa and Dahlan lists could pose significant problems for Fatah, particularly in the Gaza Strip. But the emerging struggle is only the latest evidence of broader dysfunction within the party, which has been years in the making.

“Al-Qudwa’s decision to run an independent list is a sign of the intense dissatisfaction within Fatah with the direction of Abbas’s leadership and his authoritarian and increasingly paranoid grip on power,” said Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

Nasser al-Qudwa

Then-Palestinian Foreign Minister Nasser al-Qudwa (right) speaks during the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People with Yuri Gourov, U.N. chief of the Division for Palestinian Rights, at the United Nations headquarters in New York on Nov. 29, 2005.STAN HONDA/AFP via Getty Images

Qudwa was born in 1953 in Khan Younis, a city in the southern Gaza Strip. He studied dentistry in Cairo and became politically active as head of the General Union of Palestinian Students in Egypt—which has served as a launch pad for many Palestinian politicians who go on to hold important positions in the Palestine Liberation Organization or Fatah.

During his time working in the union, Qudwa became a member of the PLO’s Palestinian National Council (PNC), then the Palestinian parliament-in-exile. He later joined the Palestinian Central Council—the intermediary body between the PNC and the PLO Executive Committee.

Qudwa has been affiliated with Fatah since the late 1960s and rose through the faction’s ranks quietly without stirring any major disagreements with other Fatah leaders. He was elected to the Fatah Revolutionary Council, the party’s parliament, in 1989 and became a member of the faction’s highest decision-making body—the Central Committee—in 2009, where he remained until his expulsion in March 2021.

Qudwa maintained close personal relations with his uncle Yasser Arafat until his death in 2004, when Qudwa founded and took the reins of the Yasser Arafat Foundation. Arafat had paved the way for Qudwa’s diplomatic work: In 1986, he appointed Qudwa assistant to the permanent representative of the PLO at the United Nations.

Qudwa’s name became synonymous with Palestine’s presence at the U.N. from 1991 until 2005, when he served as permanent envoy and earned a reputation as an ardent believer in the power of international law to bring justice to the Palestinian people. As envoy, Qudwa headed Palestine’s delegation to the International Court of Justice, making the case against Israel’s separation wall. In 2004, the court issued an advisory opinion declaring the wall illegal.

Qudwa served as Palestinian foreign minister for a few months between 2005 and 2006. Those who watched him in action in diplomatic circles have noted his remarkable role in committees tasked with finding solutions to different political crises across the Middle East. Since 2007, Qudwa has held several high-profile diplomatic positions, including as Deputy Joint Special Envoy of the U.N. and the League of Arab States on Syria, assisting then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in the exercise of his mandate. He also served as U.N. Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan in the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. Now, his focus is on the homefront.

The PA has not held presidential or legislative elections since 2005 and 2006, respectively, and about 40 percent of Palestinians have little faith that fresh elections will end up taking place this spring and summer. But that has not stopped some from supporting Qudwa’s new movement, which is relying heavily on the support of Palestinian nongovernmental organization workers, writers, disgruntled members of Fatah, and other smaller leftist movements as well as independents.

In recent weeks, the National Democratic Assembly has held regular online policy forums over Zoom to discuss its political program, with as many as 300 Palestinians—including myself—in attendance. Qudwa believes the new movement is a byproduct of their collective vision.

“This is the vision of the National Democratic Assembly. I contributed heavily, but it’s not my personal vision,” Qudwa told Foreign Policy. “Anybody could have objected to anything, and we had lengthy discussions within the assembly and the committee that was entrusted with the language and with the texts of the [manifesto].”

An elderly Palestinian man

An elderly Palestinian man reacts during a rally protesting the confiscation of land for an Israeli settlement south of Hebron in the West Bank, on March 19, before the Israeli army declared the area a closed military zone and ordered demonstrators to leave. HAZEM BADER/AFP via Getty Images

The group’s program is the antithesis of what was espoused by the PA’s current ruling powers. The National Democratic Assembly demands reform of the Palestinian political system, which it hopes to do by fighting corruption, rebuilding the Palestinian territories’ security and administrative apparatus, adhering to the rule of law, and engaging in regular elections. Its long-term goal is to achieve national liberation for Palestinians under a two-state solution along the 1967 armistice line. Here, the National Democratic Assembly—which opposes Israel’s settlement enterprise—is seeking a return to the same peace plan negotiating parameters accepted by the international community for the last 30-odd years.

Beyond the occupation, Qudwa has said the National Democratic Assembly would focus on improving all aspects of Palestinian life, from health care to education and the environment. The movement supports expanding freedoms of speech and dissent for both individuals and media organizations. One of its key priorities is also to promote gender equality, ensuring women have fair access to education and work opportunities.

Qudwa believes a major overhaul of the Palestinian polity is needed, especially as Palestinians grow weary of decades of futile peace talks that have only entrenched Israel’s hold on their land. He regards grassroots efforts to defend Palestinian villages whose lands are at risk of Israeli expropriation as the way forward—and supports a prohibition on Palestinians working in Israeli settlements. At present, there is no official PA policy on the latter issue: The PA has largely turned a blind eye to the tens of thousands of Palestinians working in settlements because it cannot provide a viable alternative form of employment.

This approach, Qudwa said, will align Palestinian national policy more closely with the Geneva Conventions, making it easier to pursue cases against Israel under international law and garner support from other states. “Without challenging settler colonialism, there will be no national independence. … Otherwise, you will just keep going back and forth with futile negotiations,” Qudwa said at a virtual news conference on March 22.

Whether or not this challenge will actually translate to support at the ballot box is not yet certain, but a recent survey shows if elections were held today, a united Fatah list would win 43 percent of the vote. A list headed by Dahlan would win 10 percent, while 7 percent of Palestinians would vote for a Qudwa-led independent list. The two men would siphon votes from Fatah’s official list, giving the party 30 percent of the vote. Now that Barghouti is backing Qudwa’s list, the poll predicts support for the “Freedom” slate will increase to 11 percent, dropping Fatah’s share of the vote to just 28 percent.

Nasser al-Qudwa and Mahmoud Abbas

Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas (right) listens to then-Foreign Minister Nasser al-Qudwa during the second working session of the Summit of South American-Arab Countries, held in Brasília, Brazil, in May 2005. MAURICIO LIMA/AFP via Getty Images

Qudwa’s attempt to run on an independent slate has come at a high price. What started out as a threat snowballed into his expulsion from Fatah’s Central Committee. He was also stripped of his duties as head of the Yasser Arafat Foundation—in contravention of the internal bylaws of both institutions, observers say.

“The swiftness with which Abbas retaliated against al-Qudwa shows his inability to countenance any form of opposition, dissent, or challenge from within Fatah,” Elgindy said. “The rift within Fatah, along with Abbas’ rigidity, could easily derail—or at least postpone—planned elections and threatens to tear the movement apart.”

In January, as rumors began to emerge that Qudwa would be running an independent platform, Abbas threatened to “shoot” anyone from Fatah who would stray from the official party line. He repeated his threat directly to Qudwa after summoning him to his presidential compound in February, but Qudwa did not backtrack. A series of retaliations ensued: Abbas expelled Qudwa from Fatah’s Central Committee, ceased all funding from the PA and PLO to the Yasser Arafat Foundation, and even took away Qudwa’s security detail and the government-issued car he uses for official business.

Qudwa is contesting his expulsion, which he believes was illegal and goes against the internal bylaws of Fatah’s Central Committee. “I was not expelled by Fatah. We haven’t seen the end of this story. I belong to this movement, I’m proud of that, and I will continue to adhere to my Fatah identity and Fatah membership in spite of what happened,” Qudwa told Foreign Policy.

The last straw was dismissing him from the very institution he heads in honor of his uncle and the father of the Palestinian national movement—a step some have called illegal.

“The foundation has a board of trustees that is responsible for choosing the board of directors and its chairman,” said Hani al-Masri, a renowned policy expert and a member of the board of trustees of the Yasser Arafat Foundation. Masri, who is also part of the “Freedom” electoral slate, denounced the decision to dismiss Qudwa as a retaliatory measure.

“What is happening is [part of a series of] arbitrary sanctions due to political differences and competition in the [lead-up to] elections, and it calls into question how far the freedom and integrity of the elections and its results will be respected,” Masri wrote.

As Abbas heads back from Germany for what his office called a “routine” medical checkup, it remains to be seen whether this power struggle within Fatah will push him to cancel the upcoming elections—as he has in the past. A costly political move, Abbas may have to rely on Israel to intervene. So far, Israeli authorities have shut down an election-related event in East Jerusalem and arrested some Hamas members in the West Bank who considered running.

Qudwa believes elections should go ahead no matter what. “Elections can be a tool for change,” he said. “Change can happen either by people going into the streets or democratically through the ballot box.”

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