As Abbas packs PLO with loyalists, succession struggle looms in Palestinian politics

The PA president appears to be backing rise of Hussein al-Sheikh, who has good ties with Israel, but critics decry backroom deals, saying next leader must be chosen by elections

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses a rare meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Central Council, on Sunday, February 6, 2021. (WAFA)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses a rare meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Central Council, on Sunday, February 6, 2021. (WAFA)

During a two-day meeting earlier this week, Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Mahmoud Abbas was scheduled to give a televised speech to a body that Palestinians once saw as the champion of their national movement.

For about forty minutes, officials called the roll of the PLO’s Central Committee and gave speeches. But when the time came for Abbas to address the crowd, the cameras stopped rolling.

It may have been only appropriate. After all, the whole gathering of the PLO’s Central Committee seemed more about behind-the-scenes consolidation of the aging leader’s power within the PLO, and the baroque court politics of who might one day succeed him, than about expressing a vision to the Palestinian people.

The meeting promoted several of Abbas’s close associates to key positions in the PLO. It took place despite a boycott by several Palestinian factions, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the most significant opposition to Abbas’s Fatah movement within the PLO.

Fatah officials publicly touted the gathering as an attempt to craft a new national vision given the tempestuous political circumstances battering Ramallah. But nothing new emerged from the conference — no new strategy, not even new rhetoric. The only tangible result was the appointment of Abbas’s trusted advisers to senior positions.

“It’s not as if they are announcing a new national vision. The story here is mostly about these appointments,” said Michael Milstein, who directs the Palestinian Studies Forum at Tel Aviv University.

The most important position up for grabs was a seat on the PLO Executive Committee — the group’s highest decision-making body — formerly held by the late PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat. Alternately admired and reviled by his Israeli counterparts, Erekat died of COVID in late 2020.

Erekat’s spot was filled by Hussein al-Sheikh, one of Abbas’s closest advisers. A longtime member of the ruling Fatah party, al-Sheikh is viewed as one of several contenders to succeed the 86-year-old Abbas.

The question of who will be Abbas’s heir hangs heavy over Palestinian politics. Abbas has yet to definitively mark any single contender as his successor, instead playing several competitors against each other.

Senior Palestinian officials attend a rare Palestine Liberation Organization leadership conference on February 6, 2022. (WAFA)

Much as al-Sheikh received the Executive Committee spot on Sunday, longtime Fatah official Mahmoud al-Aloul was appointed deputy Fatah chair in 2018, sparking a flurry of speculation that he could be Abbas’s pick. While still a potential candidate, al-Aloul remains one among many today.

It is far from clear, meantime, whether most Palestinians are invested in the high court politics that played out at the gathering.

“Some people act as though the succession can be determined in backroom deals made by a few individuals, whether in Fatah or in the PLO. This is crazy talk. At the end of the day, the only path to legitimacy is elections,” said Nasser al-Kidwa, a former senior Palestinian official who has become an Abbas critic.

But a Palestinian national election has not been held for over 15 years. Abbas indefinitely postponed the last planned vote in late April, fearing defeat at the hands of his rivals within Fatah and in Hamas.

A gathering to protest the PLO conference failed to draw crowds. But on Sunday, hundreds of Palestinians gathered in downtown Hebron in a much larger rally to protest rising prices on food and gas, calling the leadership “a gang of criminals.”

“The Palestinian people don’t care whether the Executive Committee has 15 members or 11 or whatever. There are other problems that need solutions: Jerusalem, settlements, prisoners, confronting the occupation,” a veteran Fatah official told The Times of Israel last week, his frustration evident.

‘Our friend’

The gathering will likely help to formally cement the rise of al-Sheikh, one of the most powerful and controversial figures in the West Bank.

One of Abbas’s closest advisers, al-Sheikh has long played a key role in Palestinian politics. Although he lacks popular support, his appointment to the PLO’s Executive Committee — which is widely expected to lead to his taking on Erekat’s role as negotiator with Israel — could strengthen his candidacy in the battle to succeed the octogenarian president.

Over the past few years, al-Sheikh’s star has risen dramatically. The PA may formally have a foreign minister and a Fatah official charged with handling international relations. But practically, al-Sheikh appears to have taken over some of those duties, constantly meeting with American and European diplomats and flying to summits in Cairo with Abbas.

Palestinian Authority Civil Affairs Commissioner Hussein al-Sheikh. (WAFA)

Most importantly, al-Sheikh enjoys close ties with his Israeli counterparts. Along with intelligence chief Majed Faraj, al-Sheikh attended every meeting between Abbas and senior Israeli officials over the past year. Two weeks ago, he met one-on-one with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. And whenever Israel’s new government decides to grant a Palestinian request, al-Sheikh is the one who announces it to the Palestinian public.

“How is al-Sheikh seen on our side? He’s ‘our friend,’” said a former senior Israeli security official, who asked for anonymity in order to speak candidly.

“This is our guy, and our relationship with him is very good. He does a lot to ensure stability on the ground. But his domestic standing is very, very problematic. He is the symbol of corruption in the PA,” the official said.

Al-Sheikh’s Civil Affairs office controls the pipeline of coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The bureau has been dogged for years by rumors of petty corruption and nepotism, especially over prized permits to work in Israel, build in West Bank areas administered by Israel, or travel without hassle through Israeli checkpoints.

“Al-Sheikh is a man without public legitimacy. Without his connections with Israel and to a lesser extent, the United States, he would have no source of power,” the former official said.

The former senior official compared al-Sheikh to Bashir Gemayel, the Maronite Lebanese leader with whom Israel colluded until his 1982 assassination. Ariel Sharon, at the time serving as defense minister, hoped that Gemayel would transform an antagonistic Lebanon into a stalwart Christian ally of Israel.

But the scheme collapsed into the catastrophe of Israel’s First Lebanon War. Gemayal proved unable to deliver on his own promises and drew Israel deeper into the conflict; his legacy remains deeply controversial in Lebanon to this day.

Whether Abbas intends to designate al-Sheikh or any other contender as a successor is still very far from clear. But the rise of al-Sheikh — much like the attendant PLO conference — is taking place at a distant remove from the Palestinian public.

“This whole committee meeting is a continuation of a vision that benefits a small number of people who are seeking to take over it all. But at the end of the day, this doesn’t have any legitimacy,” Abbas critic al-Kidwa said.

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