Palestinian official in Jordan as US seeks to widen Arab ties with Israel

Khaled Yacoub Oweis & Thomas Helm

The National  /  September 11, 2023

Hussein al-Sheikh was in Riyadh, where he met American officials pursuing Saudi-Israeli deal.

The heir apparent to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made a rare solo official visit to Jordan at the weekend, amid a US drive for the normalization of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The official Jordanian news agency Petra said that Hussein al-Sheikh, whom Abbas made his de facto number two last year, met on Sunday with Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi.

Discussion centred on “stopping the deterioration being witnessed in the occupied Palestinian territories” and restarting peace talks with Israel, which have been frozen for most of the past decade.

A large proportion of Jordan’s population are of Palestinian origin. The kingdom, which has the longest land border with Israel, has close links with 87-year-old Abbas and is keen to have a smooth transition after his eventual death.

Jordan, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1996, has repeatedly condemned Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians, saying it could lead to another wave of refugees that could upset the kingdom’s social balance and pose a threat to its stability.

Jordanian political commentator Hazem Ayad said that Al-Sheikh’s meeting in Amman heralds a possible drive by Jordan to raise his profile, with Abbas increasingly seen as “unbalanced” politically.

Ayad pointed to recent remarks by Abbas about the Holocaust that drew condemnation from his western backers.

“Jordan is keen to give Al-Sheikh a push,” said Ayad. He added that he is also favoured by Washington, Jordan’s most powerful ally, as an eventual replacement for Abbas.

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In mid-2022, Abbas made Al-Sheikh the Secretary General of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Executive Committee, one of the most powerful positions in the Palestinian system of rule.

Omar Shaaban, head of PalThink for Strategic Studies think tank, said that despite Jordanian support for Al-Sheikh, the kingdom wants him to embark on reforms in the Palestinian system, which has been vastly undermined by allegations of corruption and non-adherence to election procedures.

He expected Al-Sheikh to consolidate his position as Abbas’s successor at a congress for Fatah, the PLO’s largest faction, in December.

“Jordan is very interested in following and pushing for more reforms,” Shabaan said.

He said Jordanian officials also wanted to hear first-hand from Al-Sheikh about political developments in the region over the past several months.

Al-Sheikh was one of three senior Palestinian officials who met Saudi officials in Riyadh last week.

The meeting reportedly focused on a possible US-brokered normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel, similar to the 2020 [so-called] Abraham Accords signed by Israel, Bahrain and the UAE. Morocco and Sudan have also since joined.

Details of any Israeli-Saudi deal have not been made officially public, and there has been no comment from Riyadh.

Despite press reports hinting at a breakthrough, western diplomats in Amman say the deal might take a long time to be finalized because of provisions for a military pact between Riyadh and Washington, and possible Saudi demands for empowerment for the Palestinians.

In Riyadh, Al-Sheikh also met a visiting US delegation following a call between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Abbas.

Jordan had supported Abbas in his rejection of a Middle East peace deal proposed during the Donald Trump administration, which was seen as diluting Palestinian rights.

Neither Jordan nor Palestinian officials have commented on the current US moves for the Saudi-Israeli deal.

If realized, it would affect all other Arab dealings with Israel, with Saudi Arabia being the largest Arab economy and the birthplace of Islam.

Khaled Yacoub Oweis is Jordan Correspondent of The National

Thomas Helm is Jerusalem Correspondent at The National