Newly appointed secretary-general of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, PLO, Hussein Al-Sheikh talks during an interview with The Associated Press at his office, in the West Bank city of Ramallah (photo: AP)
Speculations about the health of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have sparked debate over the future of Palestinian politics, especially in the light of domestic and overseas challenges posed by continued Palestinian quarrels between Fatah and Hamas, bleak prospects for the peace process with Israel, the US stepping back from its role of pressuring Israel and fulfilling its promises to restore hope to the Palestinian leadership of imposing a two-state solution that the Palestinians demand.
Palestinian and international reports assert that Abbas has transferred some of his key powers to the newly appointed Secretary of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) Hussein Al-Sheikh, who at the end of last month became the second most important person on the Palestinian political arena after succeeding the late Saeb Erekat.
Al-Sheikh tweeted a denial that Abbas transferred any powers to him, describing the news as “false and aiming to tamper with the domestic Palestinian situation.” However, Palestinian officials told the Hebrew newspaper Israel Hayom that they will investigate the news leak. The newspaper reported that the leak is due to divisions in Abbas’ close circle “which ignited a war of succession over the Palestinian Authority [PA] leadership, and triggered political machinations within Fatah.”
Abbas, who is 87 and rarely makes any media appearances, is the president of Palestine, chairman of the PLO Executive Committee (the highest Palestinian executive authority), and leader of Fatah movement. If he is unable to serve in these positions, there will be a serious vacuum on the political arena, especially in view of an extremely complex domestic scene.
Abbas appointed Al-Sheikh secretary of the Executive Committee, a position that had remained vacant since November 2020, and after much debate about who should be appointed to this senior position. There is increasing speculation that Abbas is grooming Al-Sheikh to succeed him. However, there are several obstacles in Al-Sheikh’s way, even though he has good relations with Israel since he has served as minister of Civil Affairs for many years. That is the ministry in charge of regulating the civil and security side of relations between the PA and Israel.
A key obstacle facing him is divisions within the PLO which already failed to bring Hamas and the Islamic Jihad into its fold, a condition that was required for Palestinian reconciliation. There are also growing disputes between Fatah and other factions under the PLO umbrella such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP).
Although these two groups have not yet left the PLO, they have issued public attacks on the umbrella group and accuse Fatah of hijacking the PLO’s decisions, marginalising other Palestinian forces and factions in the PLO, and delaying the implementation of the Palestinian Executive Council’s decision to withdraw PLO recognition of Israel, since the latter is unresponsive to Palestinian demands to return to negotiations that will lead to the creation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
The PLO recognises Israel as part of the 1993 Oslo Agreement signed by the late president Yasser Arafat, but this agreement is as good as dead since Israel has reneged on most of its stipulations. The PA has also said it was created as an interim solution until there is a transition from PA to statehood.
Other divisions within the PLO have become public fractures within Fatah itself. Several circles have voiced their disapproval of the performance of the government led by Mohamed Shtayyeh, the Fatah Central Committee member. Key Fatah members have demanded the government’s resignation, and accuse it of losing the group’s popularity in the West Bank. There have been recent demonstrations there protesting high prices and demanding better living conditions.
Recent local elections at professional syndicates and university student councils in the West Bank revealed a remarkable drop in Fatah’s popularity, which rang an alarm bell for the group to take action to prevent further deterioration in public support due to the failure of its political path approach towards Israel. There have also been some domestic crises, such as the killing of Nizar Banat, an activist, at the hands of Palestinian security forces in mid 2021.
This complex domestic Palestinian scene is compounded by unprecedented Israeli extremism in dealing with Palestinians. The incumbent government led by Naftali Bennett wants to mitigate its internal crisis by eroding Palestinian rights, increasing settlement building and raiding Al-Aqsa Mosque.
The PA warns that these measures will ignite an open confrontation in the region that will spiral beyond the control of all actors. However, the Israeli government, which appears to be on the brink of collapse and close to new Knesset elections, uses these anti-Palestinian actions as election publicity to attract the radical right in Israel.
Along with the dim prospects with Israel, there is also a stalemate in relations between the PA and US President Joe Biden’s administration, which did not fulfil its promise to open a consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem. Neither did it reopen the PLO office in Washington, or put enough pressure on Israel to discourage it from continuing its abuses against Palestinians. Washington has only reinstated some of the financial aid it was providing Palestinian institutions, after it was cut off under former US president Donald Trump.
The PA’s troubled foreign relations, domestic developments and economic conditions in the West Bank have raised pressure by Hamas on its political opponent, Fatah. Hamas wants to expand its popular base and present itself as an alternative to the PA and Fatah.
Israel worries that Hamas will take control of the West Bank, since it is geographically adjacent to Israel, and the group’s growing military power, similar to the Gaza Strip. However, Tel Aviv has nothing to offer the PA which raised questions inside Israel about the future of its security situation, in light of the PA’s fragility, threats from armed factions in the Gaza Strip, and forces loyal to Iran in countries surrounding Israel.
All of these challenges are a minefield for the Palestinian leadership in the coming phase, whether Abbas continues in power or is succeeded by someone from his close circle. His absence from the scene will lead to more bleak scenarios for the political scene in Palestine.
A version of this article appears in print in the 16 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.