On Dec. 31, Mahmoud Abbas convened a meeting of the Fatah leadership to discuss the leaked recording of his close associate Hussein al-Sheikh disparaging the Palestinian Authority chairman, as well as other senior Fatah figures.
Al-Sheikh, who was present at the meeting, did not deny the remarks, which were leaked to the Hamas news agency Shehab, apparently by senior Fatah officials.
While al-Sheikh has reportedly told his close associates that the leaked recording will not harm his relationship with Abbas, senior Fatah officials say that a deep crisis has arisen between the two, and that Abbas is giving Hussein al-Sheikh the cold shoulder.
The recording is still causing a stir on the Palestinian street.
The incident is a continuation of the internal Fatah power struggles regarding the question of who will be Abbas’s successor. The main loser appears to be al-Sheikh himself. Fatah sources say that his big mouth has “harmed him greatly” and that his chances to succeed Abbas are now “close to zero.”
The main beneficiaries of the leak are senior Fatah officials Jabril Rajoub, Mahmoud al-Aloul, Majed Faraj and Mohammad Dahlan, who was expelled from the Fatah movement but seeks to return after Abbas’s demise.
Another beneficiary is senior Fatah member Tawfik al-Tirawi, an opponent of Hussein al-Sheikh who is suspected of having leaked documents from a committee that investigated the circumstances of Yasser Arafat’s death. The files indicated that Abbas had a great interest in getting rid of Arafat. Fatah sources claim that al-Sheikh is the one who convinced Abbas to take sanctions against al-Tirawi.
The episode may not be the end of the affair, and soon more recordings of Fatah officials will be leaked to the press.
Abbas is quite satisfied with the developments; surrounded by ambitious officials, he is apparently employing a “divide and rule” approach to achieve his goals.
Abbas told his close associates that contrary to media reports, he had never designated al-Sheikh as his official successor, and that the successor would only be chosen as part of general elections in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Al-Sheikh’s relations with his political ally Majed Faraj were also ruined by the incident, with Faraj supporting Mahmoud al-Aloul to succeed Abbas.
Security officials in Israel and the CIA are worried about the developments. Al-Sheikh, who was accepted by them as a possible successor, has lost his status, and the battle of succession has become even more complicated. As things stand now, there will be no escape from choosing a successor to Abbas through elections. This means a bloody struggle on the ground between the various Fatah militias, and also the likely possibility that the Hamas-supported candidate who wins the elections will be elected president of the Palestinian Authority.
Fatah Secretary General Jabril Rajoub called on Fatah activists this week to unite and put aside their differences. There are now talks between senior Fatah officials about dividing Abbas’s powers into three positions, that will be temporarily filled by Fatah officials until the elections are held for the presidency.
Al-Sheikh will continue to serve as the secretary-general of the PLO’s executive committee and also minister of civil affairs, thus maintaining the relationship with Israel and the American administration, but he is considered burned by Abbas and on the Palestinian street.
The succession battle in the P.A. is far from over, and more troubling struggles at the top of Fatah are expected.
Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israeli radio and television, is a senior Middle East analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as Director General and Chief Editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.