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PLO promotes Abbas loyalists to key posts at rare conference

With many of the PA president’s opponents boycotting, his close advisers Hussein Al-Sheikh and Muhammad Mustafa are handed top spots in pan-Palestinian organization

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

The Palestine Liberation Organization promoted several officials close to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to its highest-ranking body, the Executive Committee, on Monday night, official PA media reported.

The appointments further consolidated Abbas’s control over the PLO, which critics charge no longer represents a broad spectrum of the Palestinian public. Abbas convened the PLO’s Central Council, the body empowered to fill the posts, in the first such meeting since 2018.

Hussein al-Sheikh, once of Abbas’s closest advisers, took the Executive Committee seat vacated by the late former PLO chief negotiator Saeb Erekat. Al-Sheikh is one of the most powerful and controversial politicians in the West Bank, and is widely seen as one of the two officials closest to the aging Palestinian leader.

Erekat was widely known as the point person for peace talks and diplomatic initiatives with the US and Israel. Al-Sheikh is widely considered likely to assume the negotiations portfolio as well, but has yet to be formally appointed to the position.

A longtime member of the ruling Fatah party, al-Sheikh is viewed as one of several contenders to succeed the 86-year-old Abbas. While far from the most popular candidate, some analysts have suggested the position could boost his chances at receiving the presidency.

In addition, Abbas’s longtime chief economic adviser Mohammad Mustafa will fill the seat left by former PLO spokesperson Hanan Ashrawi, who quit last year. Ramzi Khoury, whom Abbas appointed to manage the PLO’s coffers in 2005, was formally made a member of the Executive Committee.

Rawhi Fattouh, another politician considered close to Abbas, was appointed to run the Palestinian National Council, another PLO branch.

Several Palestinian factions boycotted the proceedings, accusing Abbas of seeking to further consolidate power in the PLO by packing the body with loyalists. Ashrawi, who has become a prominent Abbas critic, also condemned the conference, which she said would only “perpetuate stagnation.”

For decades, the PLO was the standard-bearer of the Palestinian struggle for statehood. But the organization has been sidelined since the establishment in the mid-1990s of the Palestinian Authority, which administers major Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank.

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

Both the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror groups, which are not PLO members, condemned Abbas’s gathering. Two prominent leftist factions within the PLO, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terror group and the National Initiative, also boycotted the meeting.

PA President Abbas, 86, who also serves as PLO chairman, presides over a widely unpopular regime that critics have deemed increasingly autocratic. Abbas has rock-bottom approval ratings; although his term ended in 2009, he has continued to rule by executive fiat.

Though the aging Abbas has battled ill health, he has not appointed a clear successor. Numerous contenders are seen as vying for the job, including al-Sheikh, exiled security chief Mohammad Dahlan, and Marwan Barghouti, a convicted terrorist serving multiple life sentences in Israeli prison.

Palestinian national elections have not been held for over a decade and a half. Abbas canceled a planned vote for the Palestinian legislature last April, blaming Israel. Surveys, however, showed that he would likely have been dealt an embarrassing loss to his rivals within his own Fatah party and Hamas had the elections gone forward.

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