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PLO to fill key posts as Abbas succession struggle heats up

Executive committee position left vacant by former chief negotiator Erekat will likely be taken by Hussein al-Sheikh, seen as possible successor to long-ruling PA president, 86

PA President Mahmoud Abbas attends a leadership meeting at his headquarters, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on September 3, 2020. (Alaa Badarneh/Pool Photo via AP)
PA President Mahmoud Abbas attends a leadership meeting at his headquarters, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on September 3, 2020. (Alaa Badarneh/Pool Photo via AP)

The Palestine Liberation Organization is scheduled to convene in Ramallah on Sunday in a meeting some see as providing a boost to a possible successor to long-ruling Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“There is a dead end in the political process with Israel, a difficult position vis-à-vis the Arab world — the Palestinian leadership will meet to decide its approach in light of these circumstances,” said senior Palestinian official Tawfiq al-Tirawi, who is set to attend Sunday’s gathering.

For the first time since 2018, the PLO’s Central Council will meet to fill key leadership roles in the pan-Palestinian organization. But most of the Palestinian political spectrum will not attend, and some prominent factions have announced their intention to boycott the gathering.

The most important position up for grabs is 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 is set to be filled by Hussein al-Sheikh, once 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.

Al-Sheikh leads the PA office that handles ties with Israel, making him one of the most powerful Palestinian officials in the West Bank. He frequently meets with Israeli officials and foreign diplomats, and met one-on-one with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid last week.

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

Al-Sheikh is widely seen as likely to assume Erekat’s role as chief PLO negotiator as well. Formally taking over Erekat’s high-profile position would likely boost his chances in the fractious succession contest.

According to al-Tirawi, al-Sheikh will likely be elevated to the prized position of chief negotiator when the Executive Committee next meets to distribute portfolios among its members.

“Al-Sheikh was nominated to the [Executive Committee] so that he could receive the negotiations portfolio,” emphasized al-Tirawi, a member of Fatah’s Central Committee.

Several other posts remain up for grabs at Sunday’s meeting. Hanan Ashrawi, a former PLO spokesperson and Executive Committee member, retired in 2020, leaving an empty seat. No clear contender for her spot has yet appeared.

The PLO was the standard-bearer of the Palestinian struggle for statehood for decades. 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.

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.

While 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.

“Some people act as though the succession can be determined in back-room 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.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gestures during a meeting with the Palestinian leadership to discuss the United Arab Emirates’ deal with Israel to normalize relations, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on August 18, 2020. (Mohamad Torokman/Pool via AP)

But Palestinian national elections have not been held for over 15 years. The Hamas terror group won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. After a year and a half of tense power-sharing, the government collapsed into bloody civil strife between Hamas and Fatah in 2007.

Numerous pledges by Abbas and other Palestinian leaders to hold another round of votes have yet to be fulfilled. Abbas signed a decree last January to hold elections, only to again indefinitely delay them in late April, fearing a loss to his rivals within Fatah and Hamas.

Most of Abbas’s opponents will not attend Sunday’s meeting, including both the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror groups, who are not PLO members. Two prominent factions within the PLO, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terror group and the National Initiative, will also boycott the gathering.

The decision to convene the committee also sparked criticism from within Abbas’s own Fatah movement. A veteran Fatah official said the gathering’s agenda showed a gap between the leadership and the concerns of most Palestinians.

“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,” said the official, who asked for anonymity in order to speak candidly.

“If this meeting isn’t going to give us even a tiny fraction of unity, it’s a step in the wrong direction,” the official added.

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