Middle East

Rare session of key Palestinian body could provide Abbas succession clues

RAMALLAH, West Bank/GAZA, Feb 6 (Reuters) – A key Palestinian decision-making body convenes on Sunday for the first time in nearly four years in a session that could be a stepping stone for two potential successors to 86-year-old President Mahmoud Abbas.

The Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Central Council last met in 2018, hampered by internal divisions among Palestinians. Hamas and Islamist Jihad movements turned down an invitation to attend Sunday’s meeting, saying Abbas had to institute power-sharing reforms first.

Abbas heads the PLO and the Palestinian Authority (PA), which exercises limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. His main rival, Hamas, runs the Gaza Strip, also an Islamic Jihad stronghold.

The elderly leader, who has a history of heart problems, has not proposed a successor. Both Islamic groups have accused Abbas, who hasn’t held a presidential election since 2005, of not doing enough to heal Palestinian divides which are holding up a ballot. Abbas blames Hamas for the current split.

The 141-member Central Council, meeting on Sunday and Monday, was widely expected to appoint two of Abbas’s confidants, Hussein Al-Sheikh and Rawhi Fattouh, to senior posts, effectively placing them on a short list to replace him, Palestinian analysts said.

Abbas, scheduled to speak at the opening session, wants 61-year-old Sheikh, now a key Palestinian liaison with Israel and the United States, to fill the post of secretary-general of the PLO’s Executive Committee, replacing the late Saeb Erekat, the analysts said.

Fattouh, 73, another Abbas aide, is his choice to head the PLO’s highest decision-making body, the National Council.

Both men are close to Abbas and are not expected to shift policies over the handling of the conflict with Israel.

But even if the appointments are ratified by the Central Council, the path to succeeding Abbas, elected in 2005 to replace the late Yasser Arafat as PA president, could prove complicated.

“There is a long list of successors to (Abbas) and there is a clear internal conflict,” said West Bank-based political analyst George Giacman. “If something happened to (him) there will be disputes.”

Relations with Israel were also due to be discussed at the council session. Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed in 2014.
Writing by Nidal al-Mughrabi Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Raissa Kasolowsky

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