The Talented Mr. Dahlan

Does the exiled Palestinian, backed by the U.S., Israel and UAE, stand a chance of filling Mahmoud Abbas’s shoes?

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The Talented Mr. Dahlan
Mohammed Dahlan/ Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for Newlines

The normalization deals that Israel recently signed with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain were a diplomatic coup for the Trump administration. The Abraham Accords, as they were called, broke with decades of Gulf Arab opposition to any full normalization so long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remained unresolved. The Palestinians, with some reason, were livid, viewing it as a betrayal by their erstwhile brothers.

“When the dust settles, within months or a year, the Israeli-Arab conflict will be over,” U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said in September. But the Palestinian leadership, he added, was still stuck on past grievances: “They need to join the 21st century, they are on the wrong side of history at the moment.”

Not to be outdone, senior Gulf Arab officials also excoriated the Palestinian leadership for its continued obstinacy and ingratitude. “It is difficult to trust them, and to do something for the Palestinian cause with them around,” Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan declared openly.

The question was being raised more and more: Is there another, more pliant Palestinian leadership waiting in the wings? Influential figures in Israel, the United States, and Arab world seeking to cement their new Middle East order apparently think so, with one name in vogue again: Mohammed Dahlan.

A former top Palestinian official turned harsh critic of current President Mahmoud Abbas, Dahlan has been in exile in Abu Dhabi for nearly a decade, serving as a senior adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (MbZ).

From his perch in the UAE, Dahlan has remade himself into a shadowy envoy for the royal family, popping up around conflict zones from Libya and Yemen to East Africa. Turkey has alleged that he helped foment the 2016 coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Serbian opposition politicians and media outlets have accused him of moving money into and weapons out of their country, of which he’s been a citizen since 2013-2014.

Palestinian Authority officials in the West Bank view him as a bitter rival, despite hailing from the same secular nationalist Fatah movement. The Islamists of Hamas view him as a potential ally, despite Dahlan’s penchant – as Gaza security chief in the 1990s – for allegedly torturing their people. Israeli intelligence and the CIA still view him as a friendly face.

But from the U.S. to Israel and Egypt to Saudi Arabia, there are many in government who likely see him as a possible alternative to the long-serving Abbas

But from the U.S. to Israel and Egypt to Saudi Arabia, there are many in government who likely see him as a possible alternative to the long-serving Abbas: “their” Palestinian who could influence events in the Holy Land and maybe (just maybe) get the Palestinians, in Trumpian terms, “on the right side of history.”

In a fast-changing region, Dahlan is the Middle East’s quintessential “man for all seasons”: protean in his public positions, flexible in his alliances, and on good terms with nearly everyone that matters, except where it matters most to him. Will Dahlan’s financial and diplomatic clout get him back to the pinnacle of Palestinian politics in Ramallah?

Dahlan was born in 1961 into the cramped, ramshackle alleyways of the Khan Younis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, a far cry from the gilded palaces of the Gulf. His family had fled what would be southern Israel during the 1948 war that established the Jewish state. His peers in the camp during this time would go on to include Hamas’ military wing commander, Mohammed Deif, and the group’s overall leader in Gaza, Yahiya Sinwar.

Dahlan, however, began his political life as a teenager in Fatah’s youth movement, the Shabiba, engaging in minor attacks against Israeli forces. Imprisoned five times during the 1980s, he wasn’t yet viewed as a major Fatah leader. “He didn’t stand out particularly, and he wasn’t in jail for ‘heavy’ crimes with ‘blood on his hands,’ he was just one of the Fatah youngsters,” Ehud Yaari, the dean of Israel’s Arab Affairs correspondents, recently told me. (Full disclosure: Yaari is a colleague at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.)

Dahlan used his time in prison to learn Hebrew fluently, but when he was released for the last time in 1987 he eventually made his way to Tunis, where Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) were headquartered. He caught Arafat’s eye, rising in the ranks to take over the PLO’s newly created “Gaza Committee,” responsible for funneling money and providing direction to Fatah cadres in the midst of the First Intifada.

In 1994, a year after the signing of the Oslo Accords, Dahlan made his triumphant return to the Palestinian Territories along with Arafat. The newly created Palestinian Authority (PA), a self-rule entity in Gaza and the West Bank, needed a security force, and Arafat installed Dahlan as head of Preventive Security in Gaza, focusing primarily on counter-terrorism – or, as foreign officials took to calling them, the “Hamas Hunters.” The CIA began advising and financing his forces, and Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, worked with him closely.

With Arafat spending more time in the West Bank and less in Gaza, Dahlan became, for many, the strongman of the coastal strip. In the PA’s intermittent crackdowns on Hamas, it was Dahlan’s men that earned a reputation for harsh measures: imprisoning, humiliating, and allegedly torturing Islamist militants.

It was during the late 1990s that corruption allegations first surfaced against Dahlan, including a scheme to skim tax revenues from goods entering Gaza. No matter; by the time of the 2000 Camp David peace conference, Dahlan remained a trusted Arafat aide, reportedly urging the Palestinian leader to strike a more accommodating position — in contrast to Abbas.

Yet in the wake of the summit’s collapse and the eruption of the Second Intifada, Dahlan and Abbas would become close allies, coming out against the widespread use of violence and suicide bombings against Israeli civilians and, later, against Arafat himself. (However, Israel did suspect Dahlan forces of being behind several attacks in the Intifada’s early days.)

The international community at this time viewed Abbas and Dahlan as moderates and reformists, especially vis-à-vis the discredited Arafat. Arafat and his allies fought back, launching demonstrations against Abbas – now PA prime minister – and his newly formed government, in which Dahlan was named Minister of State for Security Affairs in April 2003. Protestors branded both as collaborators with Israel and Washington.

Dahlan would later remark on this period in an Arabic interview: “I used to defend [Abbas] when they described him as Palestine’s [Hamid] Karzai … I was beside him when all stood against him.”

After Arafat’s death in November 2004 and the election of Abbas as the new Palestinian president, Dahlan was given more powers, serving as Minister for Civil Affairs – effectively the main Palestinian interlocutor with Israel. He resigned the post to run in the 2006 parliamentary elections, securing the top spot in the Khan Younis district against a packed field of Fatah and Hamas candidates. “He was always smooth, and more a politician than any of the other PA security chiefs,” one former senior Israeli official who knew Dahlan well recently told me.

But the parliamentary elections presented a problem: Hamas had shockingly won a majority, taking control of the PA government while Abbas still held the presidency. What followed was over a year of internecine jurisdictional and political battles between Hamas and Fatah that bled onto the streets of the West Bank and especially Gaza.

In a bid to bring the chaos under control, Abbas appointed Dahlan as his national security adviser. The Bush Administration funneled money and arms to the security services still under the president’s (and Dahlan’s) control, but it was a losing rear-guard action. Not only were Iran and Qatar funding Hamas’s extra-governmental militia to a greater degree, but Fatah itself was wracked by factional infighting.

Intermittent clashes in Gaza escalated into a full offensive by Hamas in June 2007. In four days a few thousand Hamas fighters routed an estimated combined force of 20,000 Fatah personnel in the territory. Tellingly, Dahlan and his top lieutenants were overseas.

Senior Israeli officials vented their frustration at Dahlan’s absence to their U.S. counterparts. “Dahlan is trying to manage Fatah’s security forces by remote control. We are not even sure where he is,” the head of the Shin Bet told U.S. diplomats on the eve of the fighting. Dahlan, for his part, was away in either Berlin, Cairo, or Amman, getting surgery for his ailing knees or back, depending on the version of events.

The final result was a complete Hamas putsch against Fatah forces in Gaza. Some of Dahlan’s men reportedly escaped via fishing boats, while other Fatah personnel and families fled to the crossings with Israel. “It would be very easy for a few people who have a goal to succeed over a large army that does not have a goal and does not have proper weaponry,” Dahlan later lamented, as quoted in Hillel Frisch’s 2010 book on the Palestinian military. The strongman of Gaza had lost Gaza.

Dahlan, along with the rest of the PA, retrenched in the West Bank, making Ramallah his new home. The next few years would see him elected to Fatah’s highest decision-making body, the Central Committee, a sign of his continued popularity inside the movement. But Dahlan’s relationship with Abbas was crumbling.

The fall of Gaza weighed heavily on both men. Dahlan resigned as national security adviser and later called for an investigation to determine who was responsible, saying: “It should start with [Abbas] first since he is the leader who shoulders the responsibility for the defeat in battle before the soldier. This is the norm.”

Even worse were persistent rumors that the United States was grooming Dahlan to be Abbas’ deputy and successor, and a report that an anti-Abbas bloc within Fatah was coalescing around Dahlan. Leaked recordings of Dahlan criticizing Abbas and his sons only strengthened Abbas’ paranoia of a potential palace coup.

In the end, Abbas struck first – in 2011. Dahlan was suspended and ultimately booted from the Fatah party, and PA security forces raided his home in late summer. He barely made it out of the West Bank, fleeing to Jordan the next day.

Officially, Palestinian courts allege a litany of wrongdoing perpetrated by Dahlan, including embezzling official funds, bribery, slander, and amassing weapons with an eye to a military takeover of the PA. The coup de grace was the allegation that Dahlan actually assassinated Arafat, a smear usually reserved for Israel. Dahlan would face three years in prison if he were to set foot in the West Bank.

“There is no justice system under Abbas. He destroyed Fatah, the PA, and the fabric of Palestinian national unity,” Dahlan would say in a 2015 interview with the Egyptian newspaper Al-Youm al-Saba, denying all charges. Exile and opposition would be his path now, albeit in style.

How Dahlan ended up in Abu Dhabi at the side of a crown prince is still shrouded in mystery, although the likeliest explanation is that the connections of Mohammed Rashid, an Iraqi Kurd and the PLO’s former “money man,” paved the way. Dahlan has claimed his Emirati ties go back years, to the Arafat era. Dahlan’s natural charm and utility to the Gulf states took care of the rest.

People that know Dahlan – even his opponents – highlight his intelligence and cleverness. Nearing 60 but still youthful, clean shaven, with a strong helmet of black hair, he also looks the part of a modern Arab power player, dressing since his early days as Gaza’s security chief in finely-tailored suits.

“He has a sense of humor, he’s sociable, he hugs and kisses. He’s also direct and speaks dugri [straight talker],” Yaari, the veteran Israeli journalist, told me. It’s worth noting Dahlan is of the same generation as MbZ, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and King Abdullah of Jordan.

Gulf leaders view Dahlan as a useful tool by which they can still claim political legitimacy on the Palestinian issue — or at least blunt criticism from rival quarters like Turkey and Qatar (who back the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Hamas) or the inflexible Abbas.

“This is a replay of the inter-Arab rivalry game going back to the late 1950s, in which the ‘Palestine card’ was used against each other, with no real concern for the Palestinians,” one Arab academic and analyst based in the region told me. A Saudi journalist went further, telling me that Abbas’ harsh reaction to the Abraham Accords was “part of a Muslim Brotherhood campaign” against Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, noting, for good measure, the Abbas family’s longstanding business ties in Qatar.

A person familiar with the Trump administration’s thinking added that Dahlan’s continuing appeal was all of the above, combined with a shade of menace. “He was brutal in Gaza, and he’s willing to kill people. In this sense he’s Arafat-esque,” the person told me.

Just the man, it seemed, for special missions across the Middle East and beyond in the service of Emirati and Gulf Arab interests.

According to reports, in 2015 alone Dahlan was sent to Khartoum to mediate a deal between Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt over a controversial Nile River dam project; flown into Libya on a private jet for secret talks with Libyan rebel elements, including former Gadhafi regime members; and managed, on behalf of the UAE, a targeted assassination program undertaken by U.S. mercenaries against Islamist figures in Yemen.

“The UAE took him in as their pit bull,” a former CIA officer who knows Dahlan told Buzzfeed News.

In the same vein, Turkey last year issued an arrest warrant for Dahlan, along with a nearly one million dollar reward in 2019, upped later to two million. Turkey accuses him of helping plot the 2016 coup against Erdogan. Dahlan has rejected the accusations, which most chalk up to the aforementioned regional divide between Turkey (and Qatar) and the so-called moderate Gulf Arab camp (and Egypt).

Further afield, Dahlan somehow acquired citizenship for himself and his family members in both Montenegro and Serbia several years ago, leading to a flurry of Serbian media investigations surrounding Emirati financial dealings in the Balkans. Indeed, the UAE reportedly made major investments in the Serbian national airline, a controversial Belgrade waterfront development, and other high-end real estate holdings. Serbian opposition politicians have accused the current government of using the country’s lax weapons export restrictions to funnel arms to the Middle East at the UAE’s behest.

No matter these regional and international intrigues, Dahlan over the past decade has never lost touch with developments in the Holy Land. He maintains contact with senior Israeli figures, reportedly meeting with Avigdor Liberman during Liberman’s tenure as foreign minister several times in various European capitals. And Israel’s Yediot Aharonot daily recently reported that Yaakov Peri, Shin Bet chief in the early 1990s, met with Dahlan in 2016 in the lobby of a central European hotel, in plain view of other Israeli and Palestinian visitors.

Yet Dahlan’s prime objective remains the Palestinian territories. With the UAE’s vast wealth at his disposal, he has poured money into Gaza and the West Bank in a bid to increase his base of popular support.

Dahlan has mended ties with his sworn enemies in Hamas, who have allowed him to disburse financial aid – for the health sector, mass weddings, and tens of thousands of scholarships – in blockaded Gaza. Dahlan’s wife, Jalila, has in the past entered the coastal territory bearing suitcases of cash. The same scenario has reportedly repeated itself in Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan as well.

In the West Bank, Dahlan has similarly invested resources to woo various Fatah figures, families and factions, especially in the refugee camps. Both Palestinian officials and Israeli intelligence believe this includes arming local Fatah cadres. On this point Abbas is ever vigilant, if not paranoid. The largest operation to date undertaken by the PA security forces in the West Bank took place in Nablus in late 2016, against what was initially termed “criminal gangs” affiliated with Fatah (and Dahlan).

As Nablus Governor Akram Rajoub told me at the time, a direct line ran through the PA’s lax policy vis-à-vis Hamas prior to its 2007 takeover of Gaza and the perceived growing threat from within this segment of the Fatah movement. “These are political weapons,” he said, and the PA had to respond to the challenge.

The PA has shuttered websites and foundations in the West Bank it alleges receive Dahlan (or Emirati) money. Abbas has expelled from the party, and even arrested, Fatah parliamentarians and security officers believed to be close to Dahlan. As one local official in Nablus told me, “Abbas runs Fatah like the Chinese Communist Party. He gets rid of certain inputs so he can control the outputs, to free [the party] from undesired elements.”

Dahlan and other rebels have in recent years formalized their opposition, creating the Democratic Reform Current within Fatah. In line with Dahlan’s past criticism of Abbas, these Fatah figures argue that the party’s – and Palestine’s – situation has never been worse: internally divided, internationally isolated.

Their common policy prescriptions are open and fair national elections (the last took place in 2006, for parliament) and the establishment of a genuine national unity government that would include Hamas. Dahlan has also in the past argued for allowing Hamas into the PLO, the umbrella organization for the entire Palestinian national movement. Tellingly, Abbas has adopted these very same positions in recent months – at least rhetorically – as a political response to the recent Israeli-Arab peace deals.

The Palestinian public views Arab normalization of ties with Israel as a betrayal, yet Dahlan is clearly an intimate to the Emirati royal court

The peace deal with the UAE in particular has put Dahlan in a difficult position. The Palestinian public views Arab normalization of ties with Israel as a betrayal, yet Dahlan is clearly an intimate to the Emirati royal court. As U.S. and Emirati flags and images of MbZ were burned on the streets of the West Bank, Dahlan remained quiet, although his Democratic Reform Current criticized the desecration of Emirati symbols. When they did speak, it was to (still) criticize Abbas, unconvincingly, for his obstinacy.

“[Abbas’] policy of ‘No’ will lead us to destruction. We also did not agree with the path of peace, so to speak, of the unstable U.S. president, but turning your back to the Gulf states who are ready to invest billions to solve the Palestinian plight is folly, and might turn out to be a historical mistake,” one Dahlan associate told an Israeli newspaper.

This current Dahlan line is a far cry from his past positions on Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. During the Obama administration’s peace efforts, Dahlan blasted Abbas for his “weak negotiating position” and the threat of “cheap blackmail [by] the U.S.,” warning that the Palestinian leader would make concessions that his predecessor, Arafat, never would have countenanced.

Dahlan during this period also directed his ire at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, telling Al-Youm al-Saba that his “true face” had been revealed during peace talks: “No to Jerusalem, no to the two-state solution, no to Palestinian rights.” Abbas, Dahlan added then, was living with the “illusions” of negotiations that were a “national betrayal.” It was time to “shake off” this political reality, Dahlan said, an allusion to another Intifada.

Mohammed Dahlan is nothing if not flexible. The new era of normalization sweeping the Middle East, along with the clear Gulf antipathy toward Abbas, could mark the start of a coveted return to Palestine – at least in his mind.

This past June, a month before the peace deal between the UAE and Israel was announced, an Emirati coronavirus aid flight to the Palestinians landed in Tel Aviv. Subsequent reports said that Dahlan and Tahnoun bin Zayed al Nahyan – MbZ’s younger brother and national security adviser – were also on the flight.

It was rumored that Dahlan met in Jerusalem with his loyalists from the West Bank. Although Israeli and Palestinian sources dispute the veracity of these reports, the allegations have fed the PA’s overall conviction that Dahlan was behind the UAE’s agreement with Israel, reached via intense U.S. mediation.

And indeed, according to the person familiar with Trump administration thinking, former U.S. peace envoy Jason Greenblatt has met with Dahlan at least once in Abu Dhabi, with follow-on meetings with other U.S. officials held virtually. But, this person added, “Dahlan wasn’t behind [the peace deal] …. This administration thinks he’s an interesting guy, but anyone willing to criticize Abbas is interesting to them.”

Israel and several Arab states likely consider him interesting, too, for the same reasons.

“Anyone who wants to impose a solution [to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] that’s not dependent on Palestinian public opinion and consent sees him as a worthy candidate for Palestinian leader. They think they can maneuver him easily,” the former senior Israeli official recently told me. “For what it’s worth, I don’t think they’re correct.”

First, however, Dahlan would need to physically return to the West Bank – an unlikely prospect so long as Abbas, 85, remains alive and in power.

“He’s waiting for the period post-Abbas, or even the period post post-Abbas,” one former senior PA official told me. In recent polling by the Palestinian Center for Policy Survey and Research on presidential successors, Dahlan is at 15 percent in Gaza and 1 percent in the West Bank.

The taint of the UAE deal may be one thing, but perhaps more important are the divisions within Palestinian society based on geography, clan and class. “A refugee and thug from Khan Younis in Gaza becoming president? No way,” one prominent West Bank businessman told me flatly. “I don’t understand why outsiders don’t see this. We have politics here, just like any other country.”

And yet, in the expected succession squabble at the top of the Fatah party after Abbas exits the stage, new alliances and intrigues may be possible.

An ally bearing Gulf money and political support, coupled with an armed following in the refugee camps, may prove useful in swinging the decision toward one faction or another. As Yaari put it: “He may only be at 1 percent, but there’s more than 1 percent [in the West Bank] who would be willing to take his money.”

Until that time, the alluring mystery that is Mohammed Dahlan will endure, regardless of who occupies the White House. As a favorite of three U.S. administrations (both Democratic and Republican) going back a quarter century, and given the burgeoning Israel-Gulf alliance, the deus ex machina of Dahlan – floated in to solve the Palestinian question – would be too hard for some to resist.

“The fact that people still talk about Dahlan is impressive,” one former U.S. military official with long experience in Israel-Palestine told me. “It’s a testament to the lack of development of the Palestinian leadership, and the lack of imagination on the part of the U.S. [and others].

“The problem with Dahlan,” he added, “is that you’ll get Dahlan.”

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