The recent talk about Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas's intention to quit political life has left many wondering whether his departure would bring about real changes for the Palestinians and the "peace process" with Israel.
During the past few weeks, the 80-year-old Abbas has been telling his aides and friends that he is tired and wants to spend more time with his family.
It is not clear at this stage whether Abbas is serious about his intention to step down. His critics argue that he is just bluffing, while some of his Fatah and PLO colleagues maintain that this time his threat to resign is real.
The real question, however, is not whether Abbas is serious or not about retiring. Rather, it is what impact, if at all, his departure from the scene would have on Palestinians and future relations with Israel.
Several senior PLO and Fatah officials already see themselves as potential successors to Abbas. As the chances of holding presidential elections are zero to none (mainly due to the ongoing dispute between the PA and Hamas), the PLO and Fatah will elect the new president.
This means that the next Palestinian Authority president will be a senior PLO or Fatah official. Recently, the names of several potential candidates have been floated. They include Saeb Erekat, the veteran Palestinian chief negotiator who was recently elected as PLO Secretary-General -- a move that has boosted his chances of succeeding Abbas.
But neither Erekat nor any other PLO or Fatah officials would be able to bring about real changes in the post-Abbas era -- certainly not in the "peace process" with Israel.
When Yasser Arafat died in 2004, there was hope that whoever succeeded him would adopt a new policy – one that would lead to a final peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israel.
However, it was obvious from day one that Mahmoud Abbas would not be different from his predecessor. In fact, Abbas has, during the past decade, repeatedly vowed to walk in Arafat's footsteps. Abbas has since kept his promise by rejecting a number of Israeli offers, simply because they do not comply with 100% of his demands. To this day, Abbas continues to insist that Israel withdraw from all the land it captured in 1967, including east Jerusalem.
Yasser Arafat (L) and Mahmoud Abbas, pictured in a Fatah propaganda poster. The Arabic text reads "Bearer of the trust" on top, and on the bottom: "I call on you to hold onto national unity. It is more precious than all of us."
Abbas is not the only one who is demanding from Israel 100% of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. This has been -- and continues to be -- the official policy of the PLO and Fatah.
That is why it is hard to understand why some Westerners believe that Abbas's departure could boost the prospects of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. To many Palestinians, it is perfectly clear that the PLO or Fatah official who replaces Abbas will not be able to make any concessions to Israel. Any Palestinian leader who dares to make the slightest concession to Israel will be denounced as a traitor and will be lucky if he or she stays in power or stays alive.
What the West needs to understand is that no Palestinian leader is authorized to make concessions to Israel for the sake of peace. Neither the PLO nor the Fatah leaderships would ever approve of such concessions. And then, of course, there is Hamas, which also will never accept any peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. The only peace agreement that Hamas will ever accept is one that leads to the destruction of Israel and the establishment of an Islamic empire in the region.
Erekat has been negotiating with Israel for the past two decades and his position has never changed. Like Arafat and Abbas, he too will never sign a peace agreement with Israel that does not include 100% of the land captured by Israel in 1967. And, like Arafat and Abbas, Erekat is not authorized to make any concessions on Jerusalem or the "right of return" for Palestinians to their former homes inside Israel.
Abbas's successor will head the same Palestinian Authority, the same PLO and the same Fatah. These three institutions have a fixed and consistent policy that envisages the creation of an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital on one hundred percent of the 1967 territories. They also share the same policy regarding the issue of Palestinian refugees, namely that they should be allowed to return to their former homes inside Israel.
Under a new leader, the PA, the PLO and Fatah will continue to stick to their current policies. None of them is going to change even one position because of the identity of the leader. Those who think that a change is possible under a new leader are living in an illusion. Israel and the international community will continue to face the same demands the Palestinians have been making for the past two decades.
Palestinians should also not expect any changes on their internal front. It would take a miracle for Abbas's successor to end the sharp dispute between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, which has been in control of the Gaza Strip since the summer of 2007. The gap between the two sides remains as wide as ever, and the split between the West Bank and Gaza Strip is likely to continue for many more years.
In his inauguration speech, Abbas's successor will undoubtedly declare that he or she intends to follow in the footsteps of Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas. This means that the current stalemate in the peace process will continue. It also means that Palestinians will have to live with the reality that they already have two separate governments – a PLO-led entity in the West Bank and a Hamas-controlled mini-state in the Gaza Strip.
Those who talk about reviving the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process" need to take these facts into consideration. Otherwise, they will continue to delude themselves and others into thinking that the post-Abbas era would bring about real changes in the region. Arafat is gone, but his spirit lives on over the region. Abbas may go, but his legacy, like that of Arafat, will not.