Embattled PLO meets to choose top Palestinian negotiator

Ramallah - demonstrations against the PA continue (Abbas Momani - AFP)

Middle East Eye  /  February 6, 2022

The person chosen for the role is likely to become 86-year-old President Mahmoud Abbas’s favoured successor.

The embattled leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) held a rare meeting Sunday to fill key roles that could hint at a favoured successor for 86-year-old Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. 

The PLO, tasked since its creation in 1964 with leading the struggle against Israel for Palestinian statehood, has faced growing questions over its relevance in recent years and criticism for failing to hold regular elections to fill leadership roles. 

Sunday’s meeting of the PLO’s 124-member Central Committee – the first in four years – was expected to fill several executive committee vacancies, including that held by ex-chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, who died in 2020 after contracting the coronavirus. 

Highlighting Palestinian frustration with the PLO and Abbas, who is also the organization’s chairman, Sunday’s meeting was boycotted by several leftist factions, and protests demanding his resignation were held in the occupied West Bank and in Gaza, ruled by the Hamas movement. 

Ghassan Khatib, a political scientist at Birzeit University in the West Bank, told AFP that “the very significant questions about the legitimacy” of the PLO have been fueled by “the lack of elections”.

Abbas has been accused of maintaining a tight grip over the PLO, an umbrella group representing various Palestinian factions, and the Palestinian Authority, which has civilian control over parts of the West Bank. 

Khatib said the fact that Sunday’s decisions would be made only by Abbas’s inner circle “will further deepen the debate and the question over legitimacy”.

Palestine’s future?

Palestinians have not been to the ballot box for 16 years, and their aspirations for a two-state solution are strongly rejected by Israel’s right-wing nationalist Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

Violence flares almost daily in the occupied West Bank, while Abbas has seen his support dive to historic lows in opinion polls, accused of autocracy in rare street protests last year.

The octogenarian leader arrived at the Ramallah meeting ahead of an address to the central council, before the votes due later on Sunday. 

Widely tipped to take over Erekat’s chief negotiator role when results are announced is Hussein al-Sheikh, the current Palestinian civil affairs minister who is charged with dealing with Israel. 

Analysts have speculated that Sheikh could be Abbas’s preferred choice as a presidential successor, with the vote offering a chance to elevate his profile.  

The meeting was also due to fill the executive committee slot vacated by Hanan Ashrawi, who resigned in 2020 saying Palestinian politics needed “renewal and reinvigoration”. 

Hamas is not part of the PLO, a source of friction with Abbas’s secular Fatah movement that has in part hindered unified Palestinian governance.

At the Gaza protest against the Ramallah meeting, Hamas official Mashir al-Masry told AFP the PLO’s central committee had “no legitimacy” and was out of touch with “the will of the Palestinian people”.

He re-affirmed Hamas’s demand for Abbas to call elections across Palestinian territory. 

Abbas said he scrapped the elections that had been scheduled for last year because Israel refused to allow voting in annexed East Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as their future capital. But analysts and critics said Abbas likely balked when polls showed Fatah would be trounced by Hamas.