Australia/Israel Review


A successor to Abbas?

Oct 3, 2022 | Yoni Ben Menachem

President in waiting? Mahmoud Abbas’ designated successor Hussein al-Sheikh (Image: Twitter)
President in waiting? Mahmoud Abbas’ designated successor Hussein al-Sheikh (Image: Twitter)

The Palestinian Authority’s (PA) succession battle has gone into high gear. Hussein al-Sheikh, confidant and designated successor of 86-year-old PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, has begun an essential process of taking over the Fatah movement in the territories.

Al-Sheikh plans to take control of the Fatah leadership by convening the Eighth Fatah Conference, which will elect the movement’s institutions. Through internal elections, al-Sheikh aims to remove several of his rivals from the leadership and thereby pave his way to becoming Fatah’s official candidate in the presidential elections once Abbas leaves the political stage.

On Aug. 29 al-Sheikh met with all the Fatah secretaries in the West Bank to discuss the urgent need, as he sees it, to hold the Eighth Conference and make the necessary changes.

In recent days, senior Fatah activists considered al-Sheikh associates had pressured Abbas to set a date for the conference. Initially scheduled for March 2022, it was postponed because of constraints arising from disputes over the composition of the delegation.

The Seventh Fatah Conference was held in 2016.

Ahmad Hilles, a member of the Fatah Central Committee from Gaza, said the issue of convening the conference would be on the committee’s agenda the next time it meets. That meeting, he stated, will still occur in 2022 because it is a national necessity.

Hilles was reiterating al-Sheikh’s public exhortation a few days earlier. Al-Sheikh is recruiting the younger Fatah generation in the territories to his side, promising promotions to gain their support. 

Abbas, for his part, has already recently taken several measures to strengthen al-Sheikh as his successor. He appointed him Secretary-General of the PLO Executive Committee and appointed other associates to the committee who will bolster support for al-Sheikh.

Abbas also appointed his associate Rawhi Fattouh as head of the Palestinian National Council. He is expected to seek additional legitimacy for al-Sheikh in the Fatah institutions.

Al-Sheikh is considered Abbas’ most loyal confidant, and senior Fatah officials say he promised to tend to the needs of Abbas and his family members after his retirement. Abbas’ two sons own a vast economic empire, part of it in the Palestinian Authority, and al-Sheikh vowed that no harm would come to it.

Fatah officials also say al-Sheikh intends to weaken two main rivals in the succession battle by removing them from the movement’s power centres in the internal elections. One is Tawfiq al-Tirawi, former head of West Bank Palestinian intelligence and a Central Committee member. A report by a PA investigative committee accused him of corruption and nepotism. Another candidate, Marwan Barghouti, is the architect of the terror of the Second Intifada, serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison.

Barghouti is a member of the Fatah Central Committee and a bitter adversary of Abbas and al-Sheikh. Nevertheless, Palestinian opinion surveys show that he has public support as Abbas’ possible successor.

Last year, Barghouti announced his intention to run in the upcoming PA elections. Abbas and al-Sheikh asked the Biden Administration and Israel to make sure he would not be freed in any new prisoner exchange with Hamas, explaining that he was a terrorist who would undermine the PA’s security coordination with Israel and the United States.

Another move al-Sheikh is planning is utilising the Eighth Fatah Conference to appoint his associate, General Majid Freij, as a member of the Fatah Central Committee. He also wants to appoint other associates, such as Adnan Ghaith, Governor of the Jerusalem district, and Ahmad Assaf, Palestinian Communications Minister, to high positions in Fatah.

The assessment in Fatah is that al-Sheikh will soon bring about the convening of the Eighth Fatah Conference. Abbas had already given his consent in principle, and the PA succession battle could escalate dramatically and violently. The Palestinian street fears an uptick in assassinations in the West Bank because al-Sheikh’s political rivals have armed militias in different locales.

The Israeli defence establishment is watching from afar and not intervening in the succession contest. Fatah officials say, however, that Israel supports Hussein al-Sheikh’s measures.

Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israeli radio and television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA). © JCPA (www.jcpa.org), reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.

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