RAMALLAH, West Bank – Fueled by millions in Gulf aid dollars that are his to distribute, an exiled Palestinian operative seems to be orchestrating a comeback that could position him as a potential successor to aging Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
In a phone interview from London, Mohammed Dahlan spoke of his aid projects in the Gaza Strip, his closeness to Egypt's military leaders and his conviction that the 79-year-old Abbas has left the Palestinian national cause in tatters.
If staging a successful return, Dahlan, a former Gaza security chief once valued by the West for his pragmatism, could reshuffle a stagnant Palestinian deck. Some caution that Dahlan has made too many enemies in Abbas' Fatah movement and will continue to be ostracized by those planning to compete for the top job in the future.
Dahlan, 52, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he is "not looking for any post" after Abbas retires, but called for new elections and an overhaul of Fatah.
"Abbas will leave only ruins and who would be interested to be a president or vice president on these ruins?" Dahlan said. "What I am interested in is a way out of our political situation, not a political position."
In the past, he and Abbas were among the leading supporters of negotiations with Israel as the preferred path to statehood. Dahlan now believes the current U.S.-led talks "will bring nothing for the Palestinian people," alleging Abbas has made concessions that his predecessor, the late Yasser Arafat, would not have.
Abbas aide Nimr Hamad and senior Fatah official Jamal Muhaisen declined to comment Thursday on Dahlan's statements. Last week, Muhaisen said anyone expressing support for Dahlan would be purged from Fatah.
The bitter feud between Abbas and Dahlan seems mostly personal, but also highlights the dysfunctional nature of Fatah, paralyzed by incessant internal rivalries, and Abbas' apparent unwillingness to tolerate criticism.
Abbas banished Dahlan in 2010, after his former protege purportedly called him weak. Dahlan has since spent his time between Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Dahlan grew up poor in a Gaza refugee camp, but as a top aide to Arafat became the territory's strongman in the 1990s, jailing leaders of rival Hamas which was trying to derail Arafat's negotiation with Israel through bombing and shooting attacks.
Dahlan was dogged by corruption allegations at the time, like Arafat and several other senior Palestinian politicians, but has denied wrongdoing and was never charged.
In exile, he has nurtured political and business ties in the Arab world.
Dahlan said this week that he has been raising millions of dollars from business people and charities in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere for needy Palestinians.
Last year, he said he delivered $8 million to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
"In Gaza, I do the same now," he said. "I'm collecting money for desalination in Gaza. It's unbearable. Fifty percent of the water in the houses is sewage water. Hamas and Abbas are doing nothing to solve the real problems of the Gazans."
When asked if he was buying political support with Gulf money, he said: "This is not political money." He added that the UAE also provides financial aid to Abbas.
Dahlan's relationship with Gaza and former arch-enemy Hamas is particularly complex.
Security forces under Dahlan lost control of Gaza in a brief battle with Hamas gunmen in 2007. The defeat cemented the Palestinian political split, leading to rival governments, one run by Hamas in Gaza and the other by Abbas in parts of the West Bank, and was seen as perhaps the biggest blot on Dahlan's career.
However, there are now signs of a possible rapprochement between Dahlan and the Islamic militants — apparently because of Dahlan's close ties to Egyptian military chief, Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
Dahlan said he has met el-Sissi several times and supported last year's coup — he called it the "Egyptian revolution" — against the country's ruling Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas is the Gaza offshoot of the Brotherhood.
Since the coup, el-Sissi has tightened a closure of Gaza's border with Egypt. That blockade has squeezed Hamas financially, and the Islamic militants have been looking for ways to pry the border open.
In January, Hamas allowed three Fatah leaders loyal to Dahlan to return to the territory. The Fatah returnees and Hamas officials formed a committee to oversee construction of a new Gaza town to be funded by the UAE, said a Hamas official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the contacts.
Senior Fatah officials accuse Dahlan of trying to split the movement.
"Dahlan has created an alliance with Hamas," Nabil Shaath, an Abbas aide, has told Palestine TV. Dahlan loyalists in Gaza "have distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars without having the movement's permission," he said.
Underlying Fatah's fears about a return of Dahlan is the open question of succession.
Abbas was elected in 2005, but overstayed his five-year term because the Hamas-Fatah split has prevented new elections. Abbas has not designated a successor and there is no clear contender.
Analyst Hani al-Masri said regional support has boosted Dahlan, but that he's not a serious challenger yet because he has not offered any plans.
Palestinians "won't support a specific leader without being convinced of his political platform," he said.
Associated Press writer Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City contributed to this report.