Analysis: PLO and behold, CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A rare meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s Central Council held this week strengthened the position of Mahmoud Abbas and dropped further clues as to the long-standing president’s potential eventual successor.

What happened

  • Abbas loyalists joined the PLO’s Executive Committee and will head its top decision-making body, the National Council.
  • Hussein Al-Sheikh and Rawhi Fattouh, both seen as potential successors to 86-year-old Abbas, were among the key winners from the council meeting, with a number of other senior Fatah figures who were thought to be contenders for the Palestinian presidency apparently passed over by Abbas.
  • At the meeting, Abbas defended recent talks with Israeli ministers, although the Palestinian Authority again stated in recent days that it has no intention of dropping its controversial policy of paying salaries to terrorist prisoners – a key point of contention with the Jewish state and western donors, such as the US and Britain.
  • The PLO meeting came amid unprecedented criticism of Hamas by Palestinians from Gaza in a series of social media events, using the new “space” function on Twitter.

A rare meeting

Once seen as the key organisation in the Palestinians’ struggle for a state of their own, the PLO has had to play second fiddle to the PA since its formation in the mid-1990s. The PLO’s Central Council has not met since 2018. The 141-member council has the power to approve appointments to the PLO Executive Committee, under whose aegis the PA operates. This week’s meeting was boycotted by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, two Iranian-backed terror groups, which, although not PLO members were invited to send representatives, and also by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the National Initiative. Critics charged Abbas with “hijacking” the PLO and seeking to concentrate power in his own hands.

Battle for Abbas’ crown

Last month, Abbas entered the 17th year of his four-year term as president of the PA. While he has repeatedly scheduled and postponed presidential and legislative elections – most recently, last spring – the president is likely entering the final stretch of his time in office, giving new appointments at meetings such as this week’s added significance. The key winners at the Central Council meeting were:

  • Hussein al-Sheikh, a close adviser of Abbas and head of the PA General Authority of Civil Affairs, was elected to the PLO Executive Committee. He replaces veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, the committee secretary-general who died in 2020 of covid. Al-Sheik, who acts as the key PA liaison with Israel and the US, has not yet been appointed to Erekat’s negotiations portfolio, although such a move by Abbas is reportedly likely and would strengthen his loyal lieutenant’s claim to succeed the president.
  • Mohammad Mustafa, Abbas’ chief economic adviser, stepped into the seat on the Executive Committee left vacant by Hanan Ashrawi, who resigned in 2020 after accusing the Palestinian leadership of sidelining the PLO and excluding it from decision-making. Ashrawi criticised the meeting on Saturday, labelling it “a step that would deepen the division and harm the principle of cooperation and democratic change” and “perpetuate stagnation”.
  • Ramzi Khoury – a loyalist who Abbas picked to chair the Palestinian National Fund, the PLO’s treasury, in 2005 – was elected a member of the PLO Executive Committee.
  • Rawhi Fattouh, a top Abbas aide, was picked to head the PLO’s legislative body, the National Council. The 73-year-old, who replaces Salim Zanoun, who retired after 30 years as the body’s speaker, is also seen as a potential successor to Abbas.
  • Hamas sniped at the appointments from the sidelines: “These appointments are void, illegal and lack [national] consensus. It is nothing but a redeployment of [Abbas’s] team,” spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said in Gaza.
  • Abbas, who chairs the Central Council, left the meeting with his hold over the PLO tightened and the position of presidential loyalists strengthened. As one Palestinian political analyst told the Jerusalem Post: “This is a big victory for President Abbas. It is also a major blow to his rivals, especially those within the PLO and Fatah.”

Losing out

Israeli media reports suggest that a number of potential successors to Abbas – including Fatah Central Committee secretary-general Jibril Rajoub; Mahmoud al-Aloul, the deputy chair of Fatah; imprisoned terrorist Marwan Barghouti; and Tawfik Tirawi, a former PA intelligence chief – have been angered by the promotion of Al-Sheikh and his close ally, Majed Faraj, head of the Palestinian General Intelligence Service. Over the past year, Abbas has sought to exclude Aloul and Rajoub from the decision-making process of the Ramallah leadership. “It seems that President Abbas has made up his mind,” a PLO official argued last month after Fatah’s nomination of Al-Sheikh to the PLO Executive Committee was confirmed. “These two men [Sheikh and Faraj] are today the most powerful figures in the Palestinian leadership after the president. When the president is gone, they will most likely become major players in the Palestinian arena. One will be in charge of civilian and political affairs, while the other will be responsible for security.”

Two-state talk…

Abbas used a speech to the Central Council on Sunday evening to both defend his recent meetings with Israeli leaders, while also criticising the ongoing impasse in the peace process.

  • “This will not be an alternative to our demands for a political solution according to international law and an end to the occupation,” the president said. “We are holding contacts with Israeli ministers and officials…to solve issues that serve our people’s interests.”
  • Israeli defence minister Benny Gantz hosted Abbas at his home in Rosh Ha’ayin on 28 December, marking the first time the Palestinian leader held talks with a senior Israeli official in Israel since 2010. The meeting was the second between the two men, following a phone call in July and in-person meeting in Ramallah in August. This represents the first high-level contact between senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders in over a decade.
  • Despite accusing Israel of failing to implement its commitments to a two-state solution, Abbas has – much to the anger of some critics – ignored previous hardline stances adopted by the Central Council. In 2018, council members called for Abbas to suspend the PLO’s 1993 recognition of Israel until it recognises Palestine as a state and halt security coordination with Israel.
  • Abbas also pledged reforms to the PA, which is widely seen as inefficient, authoritarian and wracked by corruption. “We would like to emphasise that we attach great importance to the comprehensive reform process and take it seriously,” the president told the Central Council members. The US secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, pressed Abbas on the need for reform during a call with the president last week.
  • While proceedings of the council meeting were carried live on Palestinian television, coverage ended shortly before Abbas began speaking, suggesting his remarks were not intended for wider public consumption.

…but “pay for slay” stays

The PA has reiterated its determination to continue paying salaries to prisoners held in Israeli jails for terrorist offences. “The president is continuing the battle over the pensions of the prisoners and martyrs. They will receive their daily bread,” Palestinian media reported PA presidential spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudeinah as saying. Despite international pressure – including from the Biden administration – the PA has repeatedly made clear that it won’t change course. In 2020, according to a senior PLO official, the PA paid out $187m in salaries to Palestinians imprisoned by Israel and the families of those killed carrying out terror attacks. In September, Abbas told the UN General Assembly: “Why should we have to clarify and justify providing assistance to families of prisoners and martyrs, who are the victims of the occupation and its oppressive policies?”

“They hijacked Gaza”

Away from the West Bank, Gazans have been taking part in unprecedented social media protests against Hamas, the Islamist terror group which staged a violent coup and seized power in the coastal enclave in 2007.

  • Social media events over the past week have taken place nightly under the hashtag “They Kidnapped Gaza” using Twitter’s new “space” function which allows users to launch and administer conversations, which other users can then join and request to speak.
  • The conversations have focused on Hamas’ corrupt and authoritarian rule in Gaza, as well as the restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt in 2007.
  • “We see the buildings rising in the northern Gaza Strip, the investments, the high-rises. We all see it. You can’t close your eyes to it… We all know that you’re swimming in corruption,” Jehad, a Palestinian from Gaza, commented during one of the events.
  • “In Gaza, you’re told to shut up. Don’t you dare give voice to your pain. Because the shadow of the Internal Security forces is always pursuing your thoughts,” said Suleiman, a resident of Deir al-Balah in Gaza. “Our problem is with those people who live apart, in a totally different world from the millions in Gaza,” he added, in a barely concealed reference to the leadership of Hamas, many of whom live with their families in Qatar and Turkey.
  • “You see situations where one person is unemployed and in his 30s and can’t get married, while a 22-year-old has a job and can afford a car and to get married — just because he’s a Hamas member,” Amjad, who left the Gaza Strip seven years ago, said during one of the Twitter discussions.

What happens next

Despite its peripheral role in recent decades, the PLO is likely to come more to the forefront as those vying to succeed Abbas as president continue to jockey for position. While the ageing president’s commitment to security coordination with Israel remains crucial, his unpopularity and lack of political legitimacy means that Abbas is unlikely to make any bold changes – in terms of strategy and policy – as his time in office draws to a close.