Bishara A. Bahbah
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The PLO Central Council’s latest moves offer a way forward

The controversial meeting placed cronies of PA President Mahmoud Abbas in top spots, paving a path to a succession that will continue in Abbas's direction
Senior Palestinian officials attend a rare Palestine Liberation Organization leadership conference on February 6, 2022. (WAFA)
Senior Palestinian officials attend a rare Palestine Liberation Organization leadership conference on February 6, 2022. (WAFA)

Admittedly, I have been a harsh critic of the governance of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. However, unlike many observers across the entire Palestinian political spectrum, I agree with the decisions taken by the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Central Council earlier this month.

The singular objective of the meeting was to confirm the election of new members to the PLO’s Executive Committee who are close to Abbas and supportive of his policies toward Israel and Hamas. The assent of these new leaders to the PLO’s Executive Committee, the highest policymaking body of the PLO, means Abbas’s policies will continue now and, importantly, after he has left.

It also means that when and if Abbas is no longer president – whether he retires or dies in power – he would continue to be treated with honor and respect and enjoy lifetime immunity from any possible charges of corruption and misuse of power against him or his family members. (It is a well-known secret that Abbas’s children have become multi-millionaires while Abbas has been president.)

Abbas’s policies toward Hamas and the Islamic Jihad would continue. Given his lack of popularity and the high possibility that he might lose to Hamas, Abbas is not interested in holding elections in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. He would rather be accused of not being democratic than of allowing Hamas to take over the West Bank as it took over Gaza a year following the elections of 2006. Nevertheless, both Hamas and the Islamic Jihad were invited to participate in the Central Council’s recent meeting. The invitation was turned down because they wanted Abbas to institute power-sharing reforms and national elections first.

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Following the Central Council meeting, Hamas’s spokesman in Gaza, Fawzi Barhoum, stated that “these appointments are void, illegal and lack [national] consensus. It is nothing but a redeployment of [Abbas’s] team.” In my view, the Central Council’s decisions have created a permanent rupture between Hamas and the PA and reinforced the notion that at the end of the day there might be two Palestinian states, one in Gaza under Hamas and the other in the West Bank run and represented globally by the PLO.

Regarding Israel, Abbas is committed to continuing the PA’s security cooperation. Soon after Benjamin Netanyahu was ousted as prime minister, Abbas met, for the first time in 10 years, with a high-level Israeli official, Israel’s defense minister, at the latter’s home near Tel Aviv. Abbas wanted to seek concessions from the Israelis regarding the number of Palestinians who are given permits to work in Israel, other security, economic, and financial dispensations, as well as securing the family unification matters that have been in limbo for years. Ultimately, Abbas wants to move the political discourse toward creating a two-state or, perhaps, a three-state solution.

Palestinian Authority Civil Affairs Commissioner Hussein al-Sheikh. (WAFA)

The most important changes to the PLO’s executive committee involve the election of Hussein al-Sheikh, 61, to the PLO’s executive committee and his likely appointment as Secretary-General to the PLO’s executive committee. Mr. Al-Sheikh directs the Palestinian relationship with Israel and the United States, according to the PA’s official news agency WAFA. The second important appointment was that of Rawhi Fattouh, as chairman of the Palestine National Council (PNC) – the highest legislative body within the PLO.

Some speculate that they are the most likely officials to replace Abbas. However, given the younger age of Al-Sheikh, his responsibility toward the two most important ties for the Palestinians – Israel and the United States, his strong ties with Majed Faraj, head of the Palestinian security forces in the West Bank, Al-Sheik is viewed as the most likely person to succeed Abbas even though the latter has not announced whom he would like to succeed him. Nevertheless, the writing on the wall is quite clear and it favors Al-Sheikh.

Palestinian Football Association (PFA) head Jibril Rajoub holds a press conference on October 12, 2016, in Ramallah.(Abbas Momani/AFP)

The changes in the Executive committee of the PLO dealt a particularly harsh blow to Jibril Rajoub who clearly expressed his desire to replace Abbas. There are rumors that Rajoub is amassing weapons and support among the youth and his extended family to take over Abbas’s position, perhaps forcibly.

Notwithstanding the harsh criticism – including well-founded challenges to the legality of the meeting and appointment process – the Central Committee’s actions paved a way forward that can potentially improve conditions for West Bank Palestinians, crucially by providing a path for Hussein Al-Sheikh to replace Abbas. It also reinforced the current relationship between the PA/PLO with both Israel and the United States albeit with many issues still unresolved or not executed. And, unfortunately, it cemented the rupture between the PA/PLO and Hamas in Gaza.

About the Author
Dr. Bishara Bahbah is vice president of the US Palestinian Council (USPC), one of the major Palestinian-American advocacy and educational groups in the United States operating out of Washington, DC. Bahbah is former editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian newspaper, Al-Fajr. He served as the associate director of Harvard University’s Middle East Institute and was a member of the Palestinian delegation on arms control and regional security.