RAMALLAH (West Bank) -- Hussein al Sheikh, a senior Palestinian official, is increasingly considered a successor of the 86-year old President Mahmoud Abdulbas. He says that relations with Israel are so bad that Palestinian leaders can no longer carry on their business as usual.
Even if they were serious, they still have very few options. They are unlikely to do anything to undermine their limited power in the occupied West Bank. This is largely due to their willingness to cooperate Israel.
Al-Sheikh spoke out in an exclusive interview to The Associated Press Monday. He said that the Palestinian leadership in West Bank was doing its best under the difficult circumstances of Israel’s 55-year-old military occupation. Al-Sheikh, who is the point man for dealing with Israel said that there is no other choice than to cooperate to provide basic necessities for Palestinians.
He said, "I am not a representative of Israel in the Palestinian territory." "We coordinate because this is the prelude for a political solution to ending the occupation."
Al-Sheikh's profile grew further after Abbas appointed him secretary-general for the Palestine Liberation Organization. There is speculation that al Sheikh has been appointed to the top job. However, there is also criticism that Abbas, an autocratic dictator who has not held a national election since 2006 has once again ignored the wishes of his people.
Al-Sheikh, aged 61, has declined to answer whether he would like to succeed Abbas. Al-Sheikh stated that the next president should be elected, but that elections could only be held if Israel allowed voting in all of East Jerusalem. This effectively gives Israel a veto over any other leadership.
He stated that "The Palestinian president cannot not be appointed or come to power through force or come due to some regional or international interests or arrive on an Israeli tank."
Al-Sheikh repeated a familiar list of complaints: Israel's government is dependent on right-wing nationalists and its prime minister opposes Palestinian statehood. The U.S. and Europe are powerless to stop the expansion of settlements and the forcible relocation of Palestinians.
Al-Sheikh stated that the Palestinian leadership was on the brink of making difficult and major decisions when asked about Abbas’ threat to cut security ties, or withdraw Israel's recognition, which was a keystone of the Oslo Peace Process in the 1990s. "We don't have a partner in Israel. They don't want two-state solutions. They won't negotiate.
Al-Sheikh meets with the Israelis all the time.
He is the head of the Palestinian organization that coordinates Israeli permits and an aide to Abbas. He meets more frequently with Israeli officials than any other Palestinian.
Israeli officials consider him a "very, very positive player" in the Palestinian arena, said Michael Milshtein. He is an Israeli expert on Palestinian affairs and used to advise COGAT (the military body responsible for civilian affairs in West Bank).
He said that because of his close relationship with Israel, he could achieve many positive things for Palestinians, including permits and development projects. Most Palestinians cannot accept the idea of a Palestinian leader serving Israel's interests as a true leader.
Al-Sheikh's path to success follows that of his generation of Palestinian leaders, who were aspiring revolutionaries but became local power brokers through the failed, decades-long process of peace.
According to his official biography, he was held in Israel between 1978 and 1989. He then participated in the first intifada (or uprising against Israeli control) upon his release. Al-Sheikh was a colonel in the new security forces after the Palestinians gained limited self-rule over Gaza and the occupied West Bank under the 1993 Oslo Agreements. Al-Sheikh claims he was a wanted person during the second, more violent intifada of the 2000s.
He is a long-standing member of Fatah (a movement Yasser Arafat launched in the late 1950s). Today, Fatah is the dominant force in the PLO. This organization is supposed to represent all Palestinians.
Abbas was elected to power in 2005, following the death of Arafat. He is against armed struggle and supports a two-state solution. However, Abbas' 17-year tenure as president has made the peace process a distant memory. The rift with Hamas, an Islamic militant group, has caused the Palestinians to be split both politically and geographically. This has led to a decline in popularity for the PA.
Diana Buttu is a Palestinian lawyer who used advise the PA. She said Abbas believes that the future of the Palestinian people depends on him as an individual. He surrounds himself with loyalists who will not challenge him.
Abbas canceled the first elections for 15 years, in April 2021. His Fatah party was widely believed to be in humiliating defeat. Abbas claimed he would delay the vote until Israel allowed all east Jerusalem voters to vote. Only a few voters need Israeli permission to vote in the city, so the PA did not consider other arrangements.
Israel annexed East Jerusalem in a move that was not recognized internationally. It views the whole city as its unified capital. The Palestinians want to make east Jerusalem, which contains major holy sites that are sacred to Christians and Jews, their capital.
"If I have to concede Jerusalem as the price of elections, it is impossible." Al-Sheikh stated that you won't find one Palestinian who would agree to this.
This may be true. However, it could effectively stop the Palestinians replacing their current leadership and leave it firmly rooted for many years.
Dimitri Diliani is a senior Fatah member who supports an anti Abbas faction. He said that none of the president’s inner circle are electable. This was pointing out recent polls which showed that almost 80% of Palestinians want Abbas' resignation.
Diliani described Al-Sheikh to be "an active, intelligent person", a pragmatist who takes advantage of opportunities but is also very short-sighted. Diliani stated that Abu Mazen was a sinking ship and anyone on it is going with him.
Al-Sheikh still has a unique lever that could prove to be more important than the election -- access to Israeli permits.
Since 2007, he has been the General Authority of Civil Affairs' chief. This is where Palestinians can apply to enter Israel to receive work, family visits, or medical care. They also have the ability to import or export any item and to obtain national ID cards.
He's the man to go to if you have any questions in Palestine. "He's hated by Palestinians but he's also very needed for that reason," stated Tahani Mustafa (a Palestinian analyst at International Crisis Group).
She stated that Hussein alSheikh would not be able to withstand a popular election if succession were to occur through legitimate channels. "If you want to impose this kind of leadership upon Palestinians, then you will face resistance."
Al-Sheikh insists that there is no other option to coordination. He stated that the movement of Palestinians and the crossings are under Israeli control. "I am an authority under occupation."