RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Hussein al-Sheikh, a senior Palestinian official increasingly seen as the successor to 86-year-old President Mahmoud Abbas, says relations with Israel have deteriorated so badly that Palestinian leaders cannot no longer continue their business. usual.
But even if they are serious this time around, they have few options. And it seems unlikely that they will do anything to undermine their own limited power in parts of the occupied West Bank, which stems in large part from their willingness to cooperate with Israel.
In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press on Monday, al-Sheikh defended Palestinian leaders in the West Bank, saying they were doing their best under the difficult circumstances of Israel’s 55-year military occupation. As a trusted man in charge of dealing with Israel, he said there was no choice but to cooperate to meet the basic needs of the Palestinians.
“I am not a representative of Israel in the Palestinian territories,” he said. “We are undertaking the coordination because it is the prelude to a political solution to end the occupation.”
Al-Sheikh saw his profile rise further last month after Abbas appointed him secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The appointment has generated speculation that al-Sheikh is groomed for the top job – as well as criticism that the autocratic Abbas, who hasn’t held national elections since 2006, is once again ignoring wishes of his people.
Al-Sheikh, 61, declined to say whether he wanted to succeed Abbas. He said the next president should be chosen through elections, but they could only take place if Israel allows voting in all of East Jerusalem, effectively giving it a veto over any alternative leadership.
“The Palestinian president cannot be appointed, or come to power by force, or come because of regional or international interest, or come on an Israeli tank,” he said.
Al-Sheikh recited a familiar litany of complaints: The Israeli government is beholden to right-wing nationalists, its prime minister opposed to a Palestinian state. Settlements expandPalestinians are forcibly displacedand the United States and Europe seem powerless to stop it.
“The Palestinian leadership is about to take major and difficult decisions,” al-Sheikh said when asked about Abbas’ threat to sever security ties or even withdraw recognition of Israel., cornerstone of the Oslo peace process in the 1990s. “We have no partners in Israel. They don’t want a two-state solution. They don’t want to negotiate.
But Israelis meet al-Sheikh all the time.
As head of the Palestinian body that coordinates Israeli permits – and a close associate of Abbas – he meets with senior Israeli officials more often than any other Palestinian.
Israeli officials see him as “a very, very positive player in the Palestinian arena,” said Michael Milshtein, an Israeli expert on Palestinian affairs who used to advise COGAT, the military’s civil affairs body in West Bank.
“Because of its close relationship with Israel, it can achieve a lot of positive things for the Palestinian people,” including permits and development projects, he said. But most Palestinians “cannot really accept this kind of image of a Palestinian leader who is actually one who serves Israel’s interests.”
Al-Sheikh’s career follows the trajectory of his generation of Palestinian leaders – would-be revolutionaries turned into local power brokers by the failure of the decades-long peace process.
His official biography indicates that he was imprisoned by Israel from 1978 to 1989 and participated in the first Intifada, or uprising against the Israeli regime, upon his release. After the Palestinians were granted limited autonomy in Gaza and parts of the occupied West Bank through the Oslo Accords of 1993, al-Sheikh joined the fledgling security forces, rising to the rank of colonel. He says he was a wanted man during the second, more violent Intifada in the early 2000s.
He is a life member of Fatah, a movement started by Yasser Arafat in the late 1950s. Today, Fatah dominates the PLO, which is supposed to represent all Palestinians, and the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the West Bank and cooperates with Israel on security matters.
Abbas, who was elected in 2005 after Arafat’s death, opposes armed struggle and is committed to a two-state solution. But in his 17 years in power, the peace process has become a distant memory, Palestinians have been divided politically and geographically by the break with the militant Islamist group Hamas, and the PA has grown increasingly unpopular.
Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer who used to advise the Palestinian Authority, said Abbas believes “the future of the Palestinian people is tied to him as individuals”, surrounding himself with loyalists who do not will not challenge him.
Abbas canceled the first elections in 15 years in April 2021, a vote in which his Fatah party was to suffer a humiliating defeat. He said he was delaying the vote until Israel explicitly allows voting in all of East Jerusalem. But only a small number of voters in the city need Israeli permission, and the PA has refused to consider other arrangements.
Israel annexed East Jerusalem in an internationally unrecognized move and considers the entire city its unified capital. The Palestinians want East Jerusalem – which includes major holy sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims – to be the capital of their future state.
“If the price of the elections is that I concede on Jerusalem, it is impossible. You will not find a single Palestinian who will accept this,” al-Sheikh said.
That may be true, but it could also effectively prevent the Palestinians from replacing the current leadership, leaving it in place for years to come.
Dimitri Diliani, a senior Fatah official who backs an anti-Abbas faction, said no member of the president’s inner circle was eligible, citing recent polls showing nearly 80 percent of Palestinians want Abbas to step down..
Diliani described al-Sheikh as “an active and intelligent person”, a pragmatist who seized opportunities – but who was also myopic. “Abu Mazen is a sinking ship, and whoever is on board sinks with it,” Diliani said.
Yet al-Sheikh has a unique lever of power that may prove more important than eligibility: access to Israeli permits.
He has been in charge of the General Authority for Civil Affairs since 2007. This is where Palestinians must apply if they want to enter Israel to work., family visits or medical care; import or export anything; or to obtain national identity cards.
“If you need anything, absolutely anything, in Palestine, he’s your trusted man. He is actively hated among Palestinians, but he is also very, very needed for this reason,” said Tahani Mustafa, Palestinian analyst at the International Crisis Group.
“If the succession were to take place through legitimate channels, there is no way for Hussein al-Sheikh to resist a popular vote,” she said. “If you have to impose that kind of leadership on the Palestinians, then you are absolutely going to face pushback.”
Al-Sheikh says there is no alternative to coordination. “The movement of Palestinians, the crossing points, the borders, are all under Israeli control,” he said. “I am an authority under occupation.”