Hussein al-Sheikh, a senior Palestinian official seen as the successor to President Mahmoud Abbas, 86, says relations with Israel have deteriorated so much that Palestinian leaders cannot conduct business as usual.
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But this time, even if he is serious, he has only a few options. And they are unlikely to do anything that undermines their own limited power in parts of the occupied West Bank, which stems largely from their desire to ally with Israel.
In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press on Monday, al-Sheikh defended the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, saying it was doing its best in the difficult circumstances of the 55-year-old military occupation of Israel. As 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 for Israel in the Palestinian Territories,” he said. “We coordinate because this is the prelude to a political solution to end the occupation.”
His profile saw a further rise after al-Sheikh last month named Abbas as Secretary General of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The appointment has sparked speculation that al-Sheikh is being groomed for the top post – as well as criticism that the autocratic Abbas, who has not held nationwide elections since 2006, is once again ignoring the wishes of his people. .
Al-Sheikh, 61, declined to say whether he wanted to succeed Abbas. He added that the next president should be elected through elections, but that they can only happen if Israel allows voting throughout East Jerusalem, effectively giving it a veto over any alternative leadership.
“The Palestinian president cannot be appointed, or come to power by force, or may not come because of certain regional or international interests, or may not come on an Israeli tank,” he said. .
Al-Sheikh recounts a familiar litany of complaints: Israel’s government is grateful to right-wing nationalists, its prime minister, for their opposition to the Palestinian state. Settlements are expanding, Palestinians are being forcibly relocated, and the US and Europe are powerless to stop it.
Asked about Abbas’ threats to cut security ties or even withdraw recognition of Israel, a cornerstone of the Oslo peace process in the 1990s, al-Sheikh said, “The Palestinian leadership is large and On the verge of making a difficult decision.”
“We have no partners in Israel,” he said. They do not want a two-state solution. They don’t want to talk.”
But Israelis meet al-Sheikh all the time.
As head of the Palestinian body that coordinates Israeli permits – and a close ally of Abbas – he meets with senior Israeli officials more often than any other Palestinian.
Israeli officials see him as “a very positive player in Palestinian territory”, said Michael Milshtein, an Israeli expert on Palestinian affairs who advised COGAT, the military body in charge of civil affairs in the West Bank.
“Because of his close ties with Israel, he can achieve a lot of positive things for the Palestinian people,” including permits and development projects, he said. But most Palestinians “can’t really accept this kind of image of a Palestinian leader who is really one who serves Israel’s interests.”
Al-Sheikh’s career follows the trajectory of Palestinian leaders of his generation – ambitious revolutionaries turned into local power brokers by the failed, decades-long peace process.
His official biography says that he was imprisoned by Israel from 1978–1989 and upon his release took part in the First Intifada, or uprising against Israeli rule. After Palestinians achieved limited self-governance in Gaza and parts of the occupied West Bank through the Oslo Accords of 1993, al-Sheikh joined the nascent security forces, rising to the level of colonel. He says he was a wanted man during the second and 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 is dominated by the PLO, which is supposed to represent all Palestinian people, and the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the West Bank and cooperates with Israel on security.
Abbas, elected in 2005 after Arafat’s death, is opposed to armed conflict and committed to a two-state solution. But the peace process during his 17 years in power has become a distant memory, with Palestinians divided politically and geographically by a rift with the Hamas group, and the PA becoming increasingly unpopular.
Palestinian lawyer Diana Buttu, who advised the PA, said that Abbas believed “the future of the Palestinian people is tied to him as a person,” surrounded himself with loyalists who would challenge him. will not give.
Abbas canceled the first election in 15 years in April 2021, a vote that saw his Fatah party suffer a widely humiliating defeat. He said he was delaying the vote until Israel explicitly allowed voting in East Jerusalem. But only a small number of voters in the city required Israeli permission, and the PA declined to consider alternative arrangements.
Israel did not recognize East Jerusalem internationally and viewed the entire city as its unified capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem – which contains major holy sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims – as the capital of their future state.
“If the price of the election is what I believe to be Jerusalem, it is impossible. You will not find a single Palestinian who agrees to it,” said al-Sheikh.
This may be true, but it could also effectively prevent the Palestinians from changing the current leadership, making it a sham for years to come.
Dmitry Diliani, a senior Fatah member who supports the anti-Abbas faction, said none of the president’s inner circle is electable, pointing to recent polls showing that nearly 80 percent of Palestinians support Abbas. want to resign.
Diliani described al-Sheikh as “an active, smart individual”, a practical man who seizes opportunities – but who was also short-sighted. “Abu Mazen is a sinking ship, and whoever is on it is going down with it,” Dilyani said.
Still, al-Sheikh has a unique lever of power that could prove more important than electoral ability – 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 for work, family visits or medical care; to import or export anything; Or to obtain a National Identity Card.
“If you need something in Palestine, absolutely anything, he is your favorite man. He is actively hated among Palestinians, but he is also very much needed for the cause,” said a Palestinian from the International Crisis Group. Analyst Tahani Mustafa said.
“If the succession were through legitimate channels, there would be no way for Hussein al-Sheikh to face a popular vote,” she said. “If you impose that kind of leadership on the Palestinians, of course you will face a pushback.”
Al-Sheikh says there is no substitute for coordination. “Palestinian movements, crossings, borders are all under Israeli control,” he said. “I am an authority in possession.”
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