Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas appointed his confidante as secretary general of the PLO Executive Committee on Thursday, the second-highest position within the hierarchy of the Palestinian institutions.
Hussein al-Sheikh, who serves as the Palestinian Minister for Civil Affairs and is responsible for coordination with Israel, is considered to be one of the people close to Abbas and a potential successor to him.
None of the members of the PLO executive committee, nor the Fatah central committee, an umbrella organization also headed by Abbas, were consulted ahead of the appointment. Al-Sheikh’s candidacy was not put to a vote.
Abbas' unilateral decision points to a division among the Palestinian factions. PA sources note that other Fatah officials were interested in the position, but due to disagreements, Abbas did not open the matter for discussion.
One Fatah official described the move as another opportunistic move that shows how disconnected the Palestinian leadership is from the Palestinian street. Others, however, believe that al-Sheikh’s appointment could position him as a leading candidate to succeed Abbas as the head of the Palestinian Authority and put an end to the succession battles among top Palestinian officials, even if for a limited rime. “In a scenario in which Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] is unable to function, the chairman of the Palestinian National Council would become the acting president,” a knowledgeable source in the PA explained.
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He continued, “At the council’s last convention, Ruhi Fattouh was the one elected to that position, but he is an anonymous figure with zero influence within the Palestinian political system, so the center of power will remain in the PLO executive committee, and al-Sheikh’s appointment will only strengthen Abbas' grip on the institutions.”
Mahmoud Abbas has been grooming al-Sheikh for the position ever since the death of the previous secretary general, Dr. Saeb Erekat. Al-Sheikh is in constant contact with officials in Israel and the United States and accompanies Mahmoud Abbas on all of his diplomatic visits. He also attends various diplomatic meetings, which causes tension with PA Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki.
In addition, due to his coordinator's role with Israel on civilian affairs, Al-Sheikh has become one of the most powerful and influential people in the PA. On several occasions, al-Sheikh claimed in media interviews that the next Palestinian president will be elected by the people. However, some in the PA suspect that organizing an election, which is a lengthy and complex process, and might not happen anytime soon, which might result in turning a temporary or acting president to a permanent one.