The Man Planning for the Day After Abbas
JNS.org – Israeli and US officials are watching Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas with concern. Senior Fatah officials report that something is happening to the 86-year-old leader. He has slowed his activity and cut back on his meetings, participating only in the most important ones while leaving the others to his confidant, senior PLO official Hussein Al-Sheikh. In other words, Al-Sheikh, currently the leading candidate to succeed Abbas until elections are held in PA-controlled areas, is gradually assuming the chairman’s duties.
After Abbas’ June 11 meeting with a US delegation led by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf, Al-Sheikh held a discussion with the American visitors. According to the WAFA news agency, he later said he had made a series of demands:
I stressed the necessity of reopening the US consulate in East Jerusalem and removing the PLO from the lists of terrorism in accordance with the unfair congressional laws against the Palestinian people, and talked about the economic aspects and the need to resume assistance to the Palestinian Authority, as well as unilateral measures that would undermine the two-state solution and peace opportunities, especially in light of the global financial crisis, especially the financial crisis in the PA due to the occupation’s withholding of our money from taxes owed to us.
Plugging the Leaks
A leak to the BBC’s Arabic channel over the weekend stated that Abbas had been hastily taken to hospital and transferred some of his powers to Al-Sheikh. The leak was no coincidence. Senior Fatah officials say this fake news was aimed at undermining the close ties between Abbas and his trusted ally. The leak was staunchly denied by the PA and the BBC was forced to delete it from its website.
Al-Sheikh, for his part, is not taking all this sitting down. Since Abbas authorized him to assume the role of secretary-general of the PLO Executive Committee two weeks ago, he has been acting on several fronts to bolster his status as Abbas’ possible successor. Senior Fatah Party officials say it was Al-Sheikh who deferred the Eighth Fatah Conference to an unknown date, seeking to prevent the election of senior Fatah officials to key positions that would allow them to challenge him in the succession battle. Al-Sheikh’s main rival is Fatah Secretary-General Jibril Rajoub, who seeks the post of the organization’s deputy chairman in place of Mahmoud al-Aloul.
The Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar reported on June 6, 2022, that sharp disagreements between senior members of the Fatah Central Committee had begun to imperil the movement’s future. Most of the Fatah top brass do not support Al-Sheikh as their future leader. Other senior Fatah figures expressed chagrin over Abbas’ handling of the movement’s affairs and the performance of Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh’s government.
There is intense anger over Abbas’ designation of Al-Sheikh as Executive Committee secretary-general without a process of internal elections, as the PLO bylaws require. Senior Fatah officials say this damages the movement’s popularity and caused its defeat in the internal elections for several West Bank institutions, most notably the Student Council of Bir Zeit University.
Al-Sheikh’s reputation in the Palestinian street has also been hit hard in recent years by reports on Palestinian social media and in the Israeli media charging him with corruption and sexual harassment.
The Succession Battle Intensifies
A very seasoned Palestinian politician, Al-Sheikh is known to many as the “fox of Fatah.” He has been working for months to improve his ties with Egyptian and Jordanian leaders and win their support. Recently, he met with Egyptian and Jordanian officials and accompanied Abbas on his visit to Egypt and Jordan.
Sources close to Al-Sheikh say that before his PLO Executive Committee appointment, Abbas consulted with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah about the possibility of Al-Sheikh replacing Saeb Erekat. Erekat, who died of COVID-19 in 2020, was the Executive Committee’s secretary-general and head of the negotiating team with Israel. When Sisi and Abdullah did not express opposition, Abbas began transferring some of Erekat’s powers to Al-Sheikh.
One of the more prominent rivals to Al-Sheikh for the Fatah leadership is Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences in Israel for the murder of civilians in terror attacks. Barghouti regards himself as Abbas’ natural successor, and in Palestinian public opinion surveys, he is out in front in the race for PA chairman. The Israeli defense establishment fears that Barghouti, who was a leader of the second intifada, would reignite the armed struggle against Israel. Fatah sources claim, however, that Israel promised Al-Sheikh that, after Abbas’ death, Barghouti would not be freed from prison, thereby clearing the path for Al-Sheikh to take control of Fatah.
Al-Sheikh is facing a huge challenge and racing against time to shore up his status before Abbas leaves the political stage. He is getting help from his political ally Gen. Majid Freij, who is leading an effort to oust Prime Minister Shtayyeh and thereby boost Al-Sheikh’s influence.
Abbas supports Al-Sheikh, who has become his protégé. In his role as head of civil affairs, Al-Sheikh is in charge of the tax revenues that Israel transfers to the PA each month, entry permits to Israel, and VIP certificates for senior PA officials. This gives him great power within the PLO and the PA, and buys political loyalty.
However, Al-Sheikh does not enjoy great support in the divided Fatah movement. Once Abbas leaves, Al-Sheikh will face a serious problem, because the PA chairman has been the source of his power.
In Gaza, Al-Sheikh is seen as responsible for sanctions on the Strip, and all the factions oppose him as Abbas’ successor.
The Rumor Mill on Abbas’ Death
Israeli security officials are watching the efforts by senior Fatah officials to undermine Al-Sheikh with concern. Not only are Al-Sheikh’s rivals building their power by distributing hundreds of weapons to their personal militias, they have also spread fake news about the 86-year-old Abbas’ state of health on social media and revealed that the chairman transferred some of his powers to Al-Sheikh. These Fatah officials hope to drive a wedge between Abbas and Al-Sheikh by creating the false impression that Al-Sheikh is trying to “bury” Abbas so that he can become his successor—an inversion of the truth.
A few days ago, a report emerged on social media claiming that a critically ill Abbas had been brought to a hospital in Amman and died there. Fatah spokesman Osama al-Qawasmi hastened to publish a denial in the Palestinian media: “The reports in the social media about the P.A. chairman’s death are not true, and his state of health is good.” To discredit the rumors, Abbas’ office issued pictures of Abbas addressing a conference in Al-Bira on the Jerusalem issue by telephone, as well as a short video segment in which he appeared to be working in his office.
This was not the first time fake news about the PA chairman’s health appeared on social media. Two years ago, similar reports were disseminated, and PA officials claimed that Mohammed Dahlan, a bitter adversary of Abbas, was behind them. Dahlan vehemently denied the accusations. In recent months, Dahlan has ceased his attacks on Abbas and his associates. Fatah sources say this was at the behest of the rulers of the United Arab Emirates, for whom Dahlan serves as a security adviser, in order to aid reconciliation between the UAE and the PA.
The Quds News Agency reported on June 6 that Abbas was having trouble conducting his work. Citing unidentified sources, the agency claimed Abbas had been exhausted by Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi’s visit to Ramallah last week and had to take two days off. Abbas recently had health checkups in Amman and Germany, however, and it was said that he was in good health.
The news agency also claimed that social media reports about some of Abbas’ powers being delegated to Al-Sheikh stem from the intense power struggles within Fatah and the severe rift in its Central Committee. Senior Fatah official Abdullah Abdullah said Israel was behind the reports because it is seeking to sow confusion in the Palestinian arena. Other Fatah officials claimed that right-wing Israeli websites fabricated them. Israeli security sources rejected these claims as lies and said the reports were circulated by senior Fatah officials who want to create a rift between Abbas and Al-Sheikh.
It is hard to know who is planting all the rumors on social media. The Palestinian General Intelligence Service, headed by Freij, is trying to identify the source of the rumors with cyber tools. According to Palestinian law, spreading rumors about the PA chairman is a criminal offense. It can be reasonably assumed, however, that the rumors are being circulated by Al-Sheikh’s political adversaries.
In the Palestinian Authority, the malicious rumors are ascribed to interested parties like Prime Minister Shtayyeh, who is infuriated by the moves to depose him; senior Fatah officials Jibril Rajoub or Azzam al-Ahmad, who hate Al-Sheikh; and Hamas.
Abbas’ choice of Al-Sheikh as Erekat’s temporary replacement came as a surprise to the Fatah movement. In the next stage, Abbas intends to promote Freij to membership in the Fatah Central Committee. The tripartite axis of Abbas, Al-Sheikh and Freij currently leads the PA to the consternation of other Fatah officials such as Jibril Rajoub and Mahmoud Al-Aloul, each of whom sees himself as Abbas’ rightful successor.
In any case, a senior Fatah official believes that if Abbas is incapacitated or dies, he will be temporarily replaced by the former speaker of the Palestinian National Council, Rawhi Fattouh. Fattouh will serve for 60 days, after which presidential elections will be held. Although Al-Sheikh will be able to run in these elections, his chances of winning are slim in light of his blemished reputation on the Palestinian street.
Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as Director General and Chief Editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.