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July 4, 2022 5:49 pm

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The Russia News: Mahmoud Abbas’ most likely successor raises legitimacy concerns

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The nepotistic rise of Hussein al-Sheikh, the PA’s key liaison with Israel, is emblematic of much that is wrong with the Palestinian leadership.

After a year in power, Israel’s “government of change” has announced its intent to dissolve itself thereby signaling about preparation for a fifth election within last three years. Coincidentally, the Palestinian government has been undertaking a significant change of its own without bringing Palestinians to the ballot box. It causes a main dilemma: who would succeed Mahmoud Abbas as the head of the Palestinian national movement’s major institutions, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA). 

At his 86 years old, and with a life-long smoking habit and heart problems and overcame prostate cancer the expectation that Abbas is not long for this world is a prudent one. Three years ago Abbas had a severe ear infection that was complicated by pneumonia. 

Rumors of Abbas’ imminent demise swirled again after BBC Arabic tweeted that some of his responsibilities had been handed to his right-hand man, Hussein al-Sheikh, a controversial figure who has risen from relative obscurity to the inner-sanctum of decision-making at Abbas’s behest.

Hussein al-Sheikh was born in 1960 in Ramallah, he has been a member of the PLO’s Executive Committee (EC) since February 2022. In May 2022, PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas appointed him as secretary general of the EC. Previously Al-Sheikh was elected to Fatah‘s Central Committee in August 2009.

He serves as one of the primary contacts with Israeli authorities regarding civilian matters in the West Bank.

In his past Al-Sheikh served as minister for the coordination of civil affairs between 2013 and 2019. While no longer a member of the Palestinian government, al-Sheikh has retained his ministerial rank.

Following the 2014 Gaza war, al-Sheikh was appointed as the PA’s representative on the trilateral Gaza reconstruction committee alongside Israeli and Egyptian representatives. In this capacity, he serves as the Palestinian government’s main contact for the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM).

According to his own biography, Al-Sheikh was detained by Israeli forces between for 11 years, from 1978 to 1989. While being imprisoned in Israel, he learned Hebrew. Then he became a member of the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising (UNLU) during the First Intifada. Following the Oslo Accords and the establishment of the PA, he served briefly in Preventive Security with the rank of colonel, before becoming secretary general of Fatah in the West Bank in 1999.

That why, over the last six months Abbas has pushed through significant leadership changes in the sclerotic PLO that have clarified the picture over who might step into the leadership vacuum once he is gone. So, there is a chance that discussions over his “succession” are unlikely to fade as quickly as in the past.

In January, at Abbas’ bidding, the Fatah party’s Central Committee “unanimously nominated” al-Sheikh as its candidate for a vacant spot on the PLO’s Executive Committee, the institution’s top organ responsible for day-to-day decision-making, despite never having been a prominent leader within Fatah or the PLO. The appointment was confirmed within weeks by the PLO’s Central Council, a body that Abbas has spent years stacking with loyalists.

By May, Abbas had further promoted his protégé as the Executive Committee’s secretary general, sidestepping other long-standing members to become the man to lead the PLO if Abbas vacated the position. Al-Sheikh has also taken on all types of extraordinary duties, such as acting as the main contact to foreign diplomats, including from the United States and Europe, and joining Abbas on all overseas travel. Nothing important happens anymore without al-Sheikh’s presence.  

While this type of clarity may quell some fears of a disorderly leadership vacuum arising in the future, the mere debate over “succession” and the nepotistic rise of al-Sheikh are emblematic of much that has gone wrong with Palestinian internal politics during the Abbas regime and his legacy of undemocratic rule.

Abbas — whose first term as PA president was supposed to expire in 2009 — has undermined the institutions he leads in order to monopolize power for himself and his closest advisors. After Hamas won a majority in the Parlaiment after 2006 elections Abbas’ attempts to overturn the outcome, led to a brief civil war and Fatah’s ejection from Gaza.

Since the Fatah-Hamas split, Abbas has repeatedly failed to reconcile the division and thwarted every attempt to hold a new election, including most recently in April 2021. At the same time, he has used his dual authorities as head of the PA and PLO to undermine the independence of the judiciary, dissolve the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and illegally divest it of its powers, along with those of the PLO’s parliament. Today, Abbas is relying on executive decrees without any judicial or legislative restraint.

As a result, the institutional processes of a smooth transition of power are no longer viable. Thus despite Abbas’s sudden efforts to secure a successor, a constitutional crisis still looms over his inevitable departure that could result in fierce political infighting for control.

Since 2007, al-Sheikh has headed the PA’s General Authority of Civil Affairs, which liaises with COGAT, the civilian branch of Israel’s military government in Palestinian Autonomy.

While the position does not have the cachet of prime minister or foreign minister, it has arguably become the most important government position next to the presidency. Lacking any real sovereignty of its own, the PA — and the Palestinian public — ultimately rely on Israel’s military regime to function in every aspect of daily lifeThe man who oversees procedures of giving permits, visas, licenses, and other necessities from Israel to the PA is therefore endowed with tremendous power and influence.

Al-Sheikh himself has signaled that he has little intention of changing the PA’s relationship with the Israeli regime. He said that the next Palestinian leader should come to office via the ballot box, but only if Israel allows for Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem to vote. The same caveat was used by Abbas as a pretext to cancel the elections slated for May 2021.

Al-Sheikh is matched by Majid al-Faraj, equally close to Abbas and to Israel, who leads one of the PA’s most powerful security agencies, the General Intelligence Service. Together with the president, they have formed a sort of triumvirate.

Through this process, the PA has lost its original mandate, set by the Oslo Accords, as a proto-state entity on course to becoming a sovereign government.

As such, Palestinian political institutions have largely been reduced to the two above spheres —  which are uncoincidentally of most importance to Israel and, therefore, to the Western backers of the PA keeping it afloat regardless of the absent peace process. If al-Sheikh and al-Faraj carry on the leadership mantle, it will herald a continuation of the status quo. 

Despite these maneuvers, the outcome being premeditated by Abbas is far from certain. Al-Sheikh and al-Faraj have very little support beyond their patronage networks; recent polling shows that nearly 75 percent of Palestinians want Abbas to resign, and he likely retains more public support than they do.

This is also true among the various political parties including within Fatah itself, where other prominent figures are disgruntled by how they have been marginalized by the president. 

Article 37 of the Palestinian Basic Law states that if the presidency is vacated, the speaker of parliament will become interim president for 60 days until an election can be held. Although Abbas dissolved the PLC in 2018, Hamas will almost certainly insist that its candidate should be the rightful interim president.

Hamas’s popularity appears to be resurgent among younger Palestinians in the West Bank. 

Beyond the PA, the question raises over the PLO leadership. 

Although al-Sheikh now holds the position of Secretary General, his appointment was controversial even among the party ranks. 

As a result, there are now serious questions about the PLO’s legitimacy as the “sole representative” of the Palestinian people on the international stage.

The transfer of PLO leadership to a person like al-Sheikh risks delivering another major blow to the organization and further atomizing the national liberation movement.

What remains clear is that Abbas is the last of his generation, a political figure whose legitimacy has been intimately tied up with the founding fathers of Fatah and the PLO, as well as the driving forces behind the Oslo peace process. With his advisors being seriously compromised by their close affiliation with Israel, their credibility among most Palestinians is close to nil. And without some formal blueprint to determining the fate of Palestinian politics the door will be open to all kinds of uncharted possibilities, including internecine fighting among those who aspire to succeed him.

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Read also: Sinwar’s re-election as the head of Hamas’s Gaza office to rise challenges both for Israel and group’s top-leadership

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