ToI podcast'Palestinians between occupation's hammer and PA's anvil'

What Matters Now to journalist Adam Rasgon: The future of the Palestinian Authority

Palestinian affairs reporter looks at the rise of potential Mahmoud Abbas successor and the decline of the PA he hopes to lead, explaining why both have lost support of the masses

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Welcome to What Matters Now, a weekly podcast exploration into one key issue shaping Israel and the Jewish World — right now.

Next month will mark the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords in which Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed to establish the Palestinian Authority, which was supposed to be a temporary body responsible for limited Palestinian self-governance over parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip — a body that would serve as the foundation of a future Palestinian state.

Three decades later, we’re about as far away from that vision as ever. While the PA still exists, and one of the leaders who signed the Oslo Accords, Mahmoud Abbas, remains at the helm, the mechanism he operates largely fails to deliver for its people.

But should the Palestinians’ problems be Israel’s as well?

This week’s What Matters Now guest, journalist Adam Rasgon, appeared to argue as much: “It ultimately is in Israel’s interest to have a transparent and effective Palestinian Authority because when you have that, it will bring greater stability to the West Bank and to the region more broadly,” he told the podcast.

Rasgon has almost a decade of experience covering Palestinian affairs for The Times of Israel, The Jerusalem Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Now a member of the New Yorker’s editorial staff, he recently co-wrote a tour de force profile of one of Mahmoud Abbas’s closest aides, Hussein al-Sheikh.

Newly appointed secretary general of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, PLO, Hussein al-Sheikh talks during an interview with The Associate Press at his office, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Monday, June 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

The story is about Sheikh, but it’s also a larger one about a PA that was born out of support from the masses but that, like Sheikh, has gradually distanced itself from the people and their struggles.

We discussed what can be learned from Sheikh’s career, what his and the PA’s futures look like, as well as Israel’s role in it all.

So this week, we ask journalist Adam Rasgon, what matters now?

The following podcast interview has been very lightly edited.

The Times of Israel: Adam, thank you so much for coming on for what is somewhat of a homecoming for you at ToI.

Adam Rasgon: Thank you, Jacob. It’s great to be with you.

You and fellow former ToI Palestinian affairs correspondent Aaron Boxerman recently published this incredibly eye-opening profile in Foreign Policy magazine of senior Palestinian Authority Minister Hussain al-Sheikh for which you interviewed 75 Palestinian, Israeli and international officials over a span of nine months. You also have years of experience covering Palestinian affairs, which makes you a perfect person to ask, what matters now in this arena?

The future of the Palestinian Authority. That is why my colleague and I chose to profile Hussein al-Sheikh, who is a contender in the race to succeed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and who is also an extremely influential figure within the Palestinian political system.

You talk about the future, but what about the present? Where are we in this current moment of Palestinian politics?

The Palestinian Authority arguably is at its lowest point ever and is facing a legitimacy crisis. The PA was established 30 years ago, and its reason for being was to bring the Palestinians closer to freedom, independence and statehood. But in many ways, it’s long outlived its reason for being. The senior leadership of the Palestinian Authority is standing and trying to keep the crumbling tower of the PA from falling, but they’re holding it up while Israel’s occupation is being reinforced and democratic freedoms within the Palestinian sphere are being eroded.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, casts his ballot during voting for local elections in the West Bank town of Ramallah on Dec. 15, 2005. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

Why in this current moment of erosion did you feel that it was important to focus on Hussein al-Sheikh?

Many people thought we were trying to suggest that Sheikh will be the next leader of the Palestinian Authority, but we weren’t particularly interested in that at all. What we were trying to say is that Sheikh’s life is a representation of the last 30 years of Palestinian history. It traces the ever-widening gap between the public and the Palestinian leadership.

Sheikh is someone who started out as a leather jacket-wearing street activist and who now is at the top of Palestinian officialdom, going around the world meeting with ministers and dignitaries in foreign capitals, driving a Mercedes Benz around Ramallah, and is one of the most influential figures in Palestinian decision making.

What does that distance you mentioned look like? How has it manifested itself?

Sheikh grew up in Ramallah, and his father was a wholesale food trader. He spent 11 years in [Israeli] prison. He was involved in a Fatah cell that carried out violence against Israel, though he himself said he wasn’t directly involved in acts of violence. He learned Hebrew in prison and studied Israel. When the Palestinian Authority was established in the early 90s, he was trying to find his position in the new order and ended up joining the security forces.

His breakthrough moment was when he became the minister of civil affairs. The [PA] Civil Affairs Ministry has a technocratic name, but it’s a ministry that deals with Israel, directly handles all the issues with Israel related to permits, approvals for construction in parts of the West Bank that are under Israel’s control, etc. Sheikh himself also deals with Israel on just about any issue — whether it’s tensions in Jenin, or clashes in Nablus, or a deal to provide 3G or 4G cellular services. He’s the main point of contact.

Palestinian women cross the Qalandiya checkpoint, outside of the West Bank city of Ramallah, on April 15, 2022. (Flash90)

You quote one US official in your story who called Sheikh the “Abbas whisperer.” How did he get so close to the PA president?

Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) has always kept the officials within the Palestinian political system who are close to Israel close to himself. Sheikh is someone who in many ways is a yes-man. Abu Mazen over the years has become increasingly intolerant of criticism. He doesn’t welcome advisers into his circle who challenge his views. Sheikh is someone who reiterates and reinforces the views of his boss. One Palestinian official we spoke to Nasser al-Kidwa said that Sheikh has a particular ability to “kiss ass, lie, brown-nose, and bullshit.” It’s this yes-man mentality that I think brought him closer to his boss, but also his ability to cultivate strong relations with Israel and to show the president that he’s capable of working with Israel on different issues [and capable of] maintaining those relationships during tense moments over the years.

I recall in your piece how it wasn’t just Abbas who liked him, but the Israelis really liked him and even vouched for him amid all sorts of allegations of corruption and even sexual harassment. Why was that?

When you talk to Israeli security officials, many of them are very positive about Sheikh. He’s seen as someone who’s a pragmatist you can work with. This is in contrast to other Palestinian officials like PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh who foreign diplomats say would spend the first 40 minutes of meetings lecturing them about history and international law, leaving only five minutes to discuss practical things. With Sheikh you go in the room, and in 15 minutes, you’ve already achieved three deals — one to open a road in Jenin, a second to deal with an electrical substation and a third to solve issues related to the cellular networks in the West Bank. Sheikh is seen by Israeli security officials as someone who’s not going to press them too hard on the larger political issues. Of course, he’s going to state that he wants a two-state solution and that he wants to achieve Palestinian independence, but he’s more focused on those incremental issues, which Israelis prefer.

He’s clearly a pragmatist, but what about some of the allegations of corruption that he faced?

His ministry is in charge of permits, and these are permits related to access to Israel — whether you’re a worker and just want to go work on a construction project somewhere in Israel, but also permits for business people who want to be able to drive their car into Israel to hold meetings with business people in Tel Aviv or who want to use Ben Gurion Airport, or permits to import certain products and materials. The allegations that we had heard throughout the course of our reporting are that officials in his ministry have been accepting favors and cash in exchange for these permits under the table. One prominent businessman told us that the ministry would grant permits to those who installed air conditioning units in their office. The businessman recalled cases of people paying $10,000 in exchange for permits. These were the main allegations we were hearing over the course of our reporting.

File: Then-coordinator of government activities in the territories (COGAT) Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, left, and the Palestinian Authority’s Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh sign an agreement to revitalize the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee, January 15, 2017. (Courtesy COGAT)

What is Israel’s role in this deterioration of the PA that we’ve been seeing?

When we spoke to Palestinians they argued that Israel was enabling this corruption. They would say that Israel had handed these permits to the Palestinian Authority to give out, and Israel knows full well that Sheikh’s ministry wasn’t distributing them in a fair way. When you speak to Israeli officials, they’ll acknowledge receiving piles and piles of complaints from human rights workers and Palestinian businessmen who claimed that these permits aren’t being handed out fairly. But when we spoke to one official in particular — Kobi Lavy, a former advisor in the COGAT Israeli liaison to the Palestinians — he said, the Palestinians are right when they say that these permits aren’t being handed out fairly but maintained that it’s an internal Palestinian issue and that if it’s not something related to terrorism, who really cares? That’s essentially what he told us.

What do you make of that argument?

Some of the people that we spoke to said it ultimately is in Israel’s interest to have a transparent and effective Palestinian Authority because when you have that, it will bring greater stability to the West Bank and to the region more broadly.

How did the PA respond to these allegations of corruption?

There was a lot of dismissiveness. We spoke to a former education minister who admitted that “we’re not angels,” but argued that discussing the failings of the PA is a distraction from the real problem, which is Israel’s occupation. When we put these complaints before PLO executive committee member Wasel Abu Yousef, he really was left dumbfounded and didn’t know what to say. He kind of just giggled, and I don’t think that was to make light of the situation, but rather express that he had nothing else to say, that he wasn’t sure what steps the Palestinian Authority could take, that it’s sort of just stuck in this mud, in which it’s incapable of changing course, even on these issues regarding good governance.

Palestinian lawyers demonstrate in front of the Prime Minister’s Office in the city of Ramallah in the West Bank, on July 25, 2022, to reportedly protest the Palestinian Authority president establishing laws by decree which they consider a violation of the independence of the judiciary. (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)

So is the PA a lost cause?

Well, the Palestinian Authority has increasingly been facing a legitimacy crisis at home. Something like 90% of the people in opinion polls perceive the authority to be corrupt. However, it’s still providing jobs for hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, so it’s still serving a purpose that some Palestinians hope will bring them closer to statehood. But that number is becoming smaller and smaller. If you look at the recent surveys, you’ll see that few Palestinians actually think the authority is going to be able to achieve statehood in the near future, not only because Israel’s occupation has become further entrenched, but also because the Palestinian Authority has shown that it’s incapable of providing good governance at home.

One of the more strong criticisms we heard was from a European diplomat who said that the PA has essentially become a conglomerate that’s serving this elite class of Palestinians while the rest of the people are suffering. He said that Hussein al-Sheikh and individuals like intelligence chief Majed Faraj are meant to hold the system together, while the politicians of the PA are supposed to be negotiating a deal. But because that hasn’t worked out. You’re left with these individuals who are holding the tower standing. Then, when you need the leaders of the Palestinian Authority to explain to the people why they need to oppose violence and why negotiation is the right path, their voices aren’t heard by the public. Instead, the most resonant voices become militants. Those voices in some ways have achieved popularity that Palestinian officials could only dream of.

Given that the PA was only meant to be a placeholder for an eventual Palestinian state, I wonder if its collapse was inevitable in the absence of a two-state solution.

If you talk to Palestinians, they’re very understanding that the PA is weak and feeble in the face of Israel and its military rule. However, I think they do expect that their own leaders, especially the ones who are going around the world talking about how the Palestinian cause is a just cause and one of human rights, will not allow corruption to become pervasive back home. That’s what Palestinians see as hypocrisy and their government not delivering on what they hoped for.

Israeli soldiers stop Palestinian protesters from reaching a Jewish settler outpost, at the outskirts of the West Bank village of Mughayer, north of Ramallah on December 18, 2020. (AP/Nasser Nasser)

Do they view the PA as poorly as they view Israel at this point?

One person we spoke to was Muhannad Karaja. He’s a human rights lawyer based in Ramallah. He runs a firm called Lawyers for Justice, which the PA actually recently moved to shut down. Karaja is also someone who represents many Palestinian dissidents throughout the years. He said that the Israeli occupation is the biggest burden that Palestinians face. But because of the poor governance, the anti-democratic rules, the weakening of the judiciary, the concentration of power within the executive and the failure to have elections since 2006, Palestinians increasingly see the PA as a parallel burden [to Israel]. That’s how he put it. It might be a bit of an exaggeration, but I think that’s something that we heard throughout the course of our reporting.

Can the solution to a lot of these problems be found in the PA holding elections?

I think for Palestinians, elections would solve part of the problem. Israel’s military rule would still be there, settler violence would likely still be there. But elections — if it were genuinely going to lead to a representative parliament functioning again after over a decade — I think it would open the space for more, it would allow for more oversight and it might heal some of the erosion and restore a balance of power that that we haven’t seen in many years.

How likely are elections to take place?

While Mahmoud Abbas remains in power, I personally find them unlikely to take place anytime soon. Abbas came close when he signed a presidential decree setting a date for elections a couple of years ago — both legislative elections and presidential elections. But he ultimately canceled them, citing Israel’s unwillingness to let the elections take place in East Jerusalem. But I do believe that after Abbas goes, whether biologically or by stepping down, there might be an opening for elections to take place.

I won’t ask you to take out your crystal ball and predict who will be the successor to Abbas, but what would you expect the succession process to look like and what are some of the names that we might see?

It’s hard to predict exactly what will happen, but there are various figures who see themselves as potential successors to Abbas. There’s Marwan Barghouti, Hussein al-Sheikh, Jibril Rajoub, Mahmoud al-Aloul. There are many Fatah figures who see themselves as being a part of the succession discussion. There are figures in Hamas as well as others. One scenario is that the Fatah leadership will come together and agree on a way forward by anointing a specific figure, but it’s hard to imagine that happening because there are so many camps fighting with each other behind the scenes.

Abbas has very carefully avoided choosing a vice president or someone to succeed him. He wants the attention focused on him, and he knows that the moment he appoints a successor, everyone’s focus will turn to that individual. There also is a possibility that the different camps within Fatah will splinter and the different figures who have groups of supporters and access to weapons will clash with each other over taking Abbas’s throne. There are many different scenarios. I often tell people, “If anyone tells you exactly what’s going to happen, they don’t actually know what’s gonna happen.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during the Arab League’s “Summit for Jerusalem” in Cairo, on February 12, 2023. (Ahmad Hassan/AFP)

We’ll end on this, Adam. What would you say were some of the major takeaways from your experience reporting for this story?

It was a tremendous experience delving this deep into Sheikh’s story and to really spend the better part of almost an entire year looking into an individual and trying to learn everything and anything that we could about him. I think the testimony of one of the people we quoted at the end of the piece, Mahzouz Shalaldeh, really sums it up. Mahzouz is a teacher in the Hebron area. He told us that his students are increasingly becoming disillusioned and that they have lesser and lesser hopes for the future. He said it feels like the Palestinians are living between the hammer of the Israeli occupation and everything that that entails, alongside the anvil of the Palestinian Authority.

That’s quite the metaphor to close with. Adam, thank you very much for joining us today.

Thanks so much, Jacob. It’s really a pleasure to be back with ToI and to be able to talk to you today.

What Matters Now podcasts are available for download on iTunes, TuneIn, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, PlayerFM or wherever you get your podcasts.

Check out last week’s What Matters Now episode:

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