Embattled PLO to choose top negotiator after Erekat’s death

Head of the Palestinian General Authority for Civil Affairs, Hussein al-Sheikh (Twitter)

AFP  /  February 3, 2022

Ramallah – The Palestine Liberation Organization meets Sunday to elect key leadership figures tasked with keeping up the struggle for statehood, at a gathering which may hint at a potential successor for president Mahmud Abbas.

The most important post up for grabs is that of the late chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, who was PLO secretary-general and had been deeply involved for decades in the now moribund peace talks with Israel. He died in 2020 from coronavirus complications.

Once the undisputed champion of the Palestinian cause, the PLO has lost much of its relevance since the 1994 establishment of the Palestinian Authority.

PLO chairman Abbas, who is also the PA president, is 86 years old and has seen support dive to historic lows in opinion polls, accused of autocracy in rare West Bank street protests last year.

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, and the coastal enclave of Gaza is still recovering from another devastating war with Israel last year.

Against this backdrop, the PLO meeting in Ramallah will seek to fill key posts in the movement that was founded in 1964 and bills itself as the sole representative of all Palestinians.

Also open is the position of high-profile official Hanan Ashrawi, who resigned more than a year ago from the 18-member executive committee, the PLO’s top decision-making body.

‘Preparing the ground’

Abbas confidante Hussein al-Sheikh, the PA’s civil affairs minister, is widely tipped to take over Erekat’s seat and chief negotiator role.

He is also among those seen as Abbas’s possible successors. Other contenders are prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh and Marwan Barghouti, who is currently in an Israeli prison over his role in planning attacks and whom supporters describe as the Palestinian Nelson Mandela.

“Sheikh is a person that Israelis seem to hold in high regard. Certainly the Americans do,” said Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

“Others feel that he’s the kind of guy that they can work with. So in the near term, it seems like it makes a lot of sense.”

A veteran of Abbas’s Fatah movement, Sheikh has cultivated ties with foreign diplomats and with Israel, and met with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid last month.

Bennett’s coalition government has ruled out formal peace talks with the Palestinians but has said it wants to deepen economic cooperation with the PA to improve livelihoods in the West Bank.

“It does look like Abu Mazen (Abbas) is sort of preparing the ground for a future succession process,” Elgindy told AFP.

“I’m just not sure that the actual succession process is going to unfold according to his wishes.”

‘Dust in the eyes’

Hassan Khreisheh, a PLO executive committee member and Abbas critic, said Sunday’s meeting was unlikely to boost the PLO’s relevance or restore faith in Abbas, with anger still simmering over his decision to scrap elections scheduled for last year.

Abbas said the polls could not be held because Israel refused to allow voting in annexed east Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as their future capital.

Critics accused him of balking when polls indicated Fatah would be trounced.

“The meeting is about throwing dust in the eyes and covering up the legislative and presidential elections that were cancelled,” said Khreisheh, who is also deputy speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, the PA’s dormant parliament.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a group with Marxist origins that Israel accuses of planning attacks, has said it will boycott the PLO meeting.

Hamas, the Islamist group which runs the Gaza Strip and has tense relations with Fatah, is not part of the PLO — a source of friction that has in part hindered unified Palestinian governance.

Palestinian activists have also circulated an online petition calling for a boycott, condemning PLO appointments made “by parties that have lost their legitimacy”.

Khreisheh said the meeting’s organizers “hope to convey the message that there needs to be some tidying up of the Fatah household and that democracy is still working in Palestine, but this is not true”.

“The truth is, there should be elections” for several PLO bodies including the executive committee, he told AFP.