By Luke Baker and Ali Sawafta
RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Rumblings in Ramallah in recent weeks have raised expectations that Palestinian politics is in play, with 80-year-old President Mahmoud Abbas, in power for more than a decade, facing a mounting challenge to his leadership.
There is frequent speculation that Abbas, who was elected to a four-year term in 2005 and has not had to face a vote since then, is about to step down. He has confounded those predictions in the past and may well do so again.
But the degree of rumor-mongering and alliance-shifting over the past two months suggests change is in the air, or at least that agitation against his presidency is growing.
Earlier this month, Abbas unexpectedly dismissed the secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization and his effective number two, Yasser Abed Rabbo, who had been critical of his decision-making for some time.
In his place, the president appointed Saeb Erekat, a long-time adviser and occasional confidant who has been the chief negotiator with the Israelis for the past two decades.
Then, in a separate but related development, a Palestinian appeals court ruled that Mohammed Dahlan, a former official in the Fatah party who is now a rival to Abbas, was entitled to parliamentary immunity in a case brought against him by an anti-corruption body set up by the president.
That increases the likelihood that Dahlan, who fell from favor in 2011 and now lives in exile in the Gulf, could return to Ramallah to fight the charges, a move that would bolster his credentials as the main challenger to Abbas.
As if those moves and feints were not enough, Israel's Channel 1 reported on Sunday that Abbas had told confidants he would step down within two months, just before a Fatah party congress penciled in for Nov. 29.
The report was quickly dismissed by Palestinian officials, with Abbas's spokesman telling Reuters it was "typical Israeli rumors" designed to destabilize Palestinian affairs.
It is not clear who Channel 1's sources were, but Israel's interior minister, Silvan Shalom, who is responsible for the Palestinian file, held unannounced talks with Erekat in Jordan on Friday, a Palestinian official confirmed to Reuters.
The upshot is that various pieces of the Palestinian puzzle are moving at once, fuelling the impression of impending change.
"This has been in the making for some time now," said Mattia Toaldo, a Middle East analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London, referring to Abed Rabbo's dismissal.
"It's part of the struggle for Abbas's succession as well as a consequence of the paranoia about Dahlan."
To all intents and purposes, Dahlan, 53, is the critical piece in the puzzle, even if he remains at one remove from the daily thrust of Palestinian politics - at least for now.
A former minister of security and a powerful figure in Gaza, where he was born, Dahlan is based in the United Arab Emirates, although he also holds Serbian citizenship.
He has been successful at raising support from the Emirates and Qatar, funds that he has deployed to help communities in Gaza and the West Bank, although critics say the money has also helped finance political opposition to Abbas.
Part of the reason for Abed Rabbo's dismissal were his links to Dahlan, Palestinian media have reported, and the same goes for legal moves made against former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, another Abbas rival.
Whether the tectonic shifts lead to an eruption will become clearer as the Fatah congress approaches. Such gatherings have been promised in the past, only to be delayed.
But if the Nov. 29 gathering goes ahead, it should better set out the allegiances in Palestinian politics and indicate who might emerge after Abbas, who has said he will not stand for another term as president whenever elections are next held.
"I don't see elections anytime soon, but I do see some intrigue at the Fatah conference in November," said Grant Rumley, an expert in Palestinian affairs at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, DC.
"Erekat's tapping as the next PLO secretary-general might be a hint that he'll be appointed vice-president," he said, adding that the success of the Palestinian leadership ultimately depended on its ability to negotiate with Israel.
Yet Palestinian sources say Erekat is not a viable successor, saying he is not deep enough in Fatah or security issues. Instead, Abbas may be setting him up as a custodian while others fight it out for the top job.
(Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Giles Elgood)