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Palestine: Abbas appoints new head of PLO Executive Committee

Hussein al-Sheikh becomes secretary-general of the PLO committee, almost two years after the death of his predecessor, chief negotiator Saeb Erekat
Hussein al-Sheikh, the Palestinian Authority's civil affairs minister, during a meeting in February 2022 (Official page/Facebook)

Senior Fatah official Hussein al-Sheikh has been appointed secretary-general of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) executive committee, raising his chances of becoming the heir of 84-year-old Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Sheikh's appointment, following a decree issued by Abbas on Wednesday, fills a position that has remained vacant since the death of PLO chief negotiator Saeb Erekat in 2020.

According to a Fatah news site, Sheikh will be in charge of the second top position inside the PLO, following Abbas, the leader of the organisation.

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Sheikh is the minister of the Palestinian Authority's (PA) General Authority of Civil Affairs, which coordinates security and civilian matters in the occupied West Bank with Israel's Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (Cogat).

There was no immediate comment from Sheikh, and the PA's official news agency, Wafa, has not yet reported Abbas's decision.

According to Ynet, Sheikh maintains close and excellent contact with the Israeli defence figures who operate the Cogat. The 61-year-old is considered the closest adviser to Abbas, along with Majed Faraj, the head of the PA's General Intelligence Service.

In the past year, analysts have speculated that Sheikh could be Abbas's preferred choice as a presidential successor.

In February, on the sidelines of the PLO's 124-member central committee meeting, Sheikh was widely tipped to take over Erekat's role as secretary-general. Erekat was a confidant of Abbas and died of Covid-19 in November 2020.

Sheikh has been representing the PA in diplomatic visits and meetings with US, European and Arab officials.

In March, Sheikh met Israel's foreign minister Yair Lapid, tweeting that he had emphasised during the meeting "the need for a political horizon based on signed agreements and international resolutions, as well as the cessation of unilateral measures that impede a two-state solution."

The PLO, tasked since its creation in 1964 with leading the struggle against Israel for Palestinian statehood, has faced growing questions over its relevance in recent years and criticism for failing to hold regular elections to fill leadership roles. 

Abbas has also been accused of maintaining a tight grip over the PA and the PLO, an umbrella group representing various Palestinian factions, except the Gaza-based Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which are not PLO members.

Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem have not been to the ballot box for 16 years, and their aspirations for a two-state solution are strongly rejected by Israel's right-wing nationalist prime minister, Naftali Bennett.