Senior Palestinian Authority official Hussein al-Sheikh has been appointed secretary-general of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, a spokesperson for al-Sheikh said on Thursday.
A longtime member of the ruling Fatah party and a top adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, al-Sheikh is viewed as one of several contenders to succeed the 86-year-old leader. His appointment could put him in a prime position to do so.
Abbas directly appointed al-Sheikh to “take on the duties of the secretary-general,” according to a PA presidential memo issued on Wednesday. Al-Sheikh wasted little time, amending his biography on Twitter to add the new title of secretary-general as of Thursday afternoon.
For decades, Palestinians viewed the Palestine Liberation Organization as the standard-bearer of their national movement. Though the PLO has become largely devoid of power since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in the mid-1990s, an appointment to its leadership still carries symbolic weight.
The position has been unmanned since former secretary-general Saeb Erekat died of COVID-19 in November 2020.
One of Abbas’s closest aides, al-Sheikh has long played a key role in Palestinian politics. In recent years he has taken over various diplomatic duties, often meeting with American and European diplomats and flying to summits in Cairo with the ailing PA leader.
Al-Sheikh also enjoys close ties with his Israeli counterparts. Along with PA intelligence chief Majed Faraj, al-Sheikh attended every meeting between Abbas and senior Israeli officials over the past year.
Al-Sheikh’s Civil Affairs office controls the pipeline of coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The bureau exerts tremendous influence over Palestinian daily life, handling everything from prized permits to work in Israel to infrastructure projects in the West Bank.
However, Sheikh also has little public legitimacy, having never been democratically elected to a senior position. He is also disliked by many for his close ties to Israeli officials and to the unpopular Abbas.
In March, al-Sheikh met with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. He said he spoke to Lapid of the need for an Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
“I emphasized to him the need for a political horizon based on signed agreements [between Israel and the PA] and international resolutions, as well as the cessation of unilateral measures that impede a two-state solution,” al-Sheikh wrote on Twitter then.
Al-Sheikh was first handed a seat on the PLO Executive Committee at a February conference of the organization. The confab was largely seen as having been convened by Abbas to hand PLO posts to close aides, such as al-Sheikh.