Why the Latest Palestinian Leader in the West Bank Is Unpopular

RAMALLAH, West Bank — For years, Hussein al-Sheikh has overseen the fraught day-to-day relations between Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the Israeli military — a role that has made him unpopular with the public but has drawn him close to the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas.

Then in May, Mr. Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, appointed Mr. al-Sheikh to one of the highest posts in his political movement.

Though Mr. Abbas is 87, he has never designated an heir apparent to lead the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the West Bank and the 2.7 million Palestinians who live there. Now, Mr. al-Sheikh’s sudden ascent has led analysts and diplomats to wonder whether he is being groomed as the successor.

At the same time, Mr. al-Sheikh, who recently met for a rare interview with The New York Times, has become the focus of a debate among Palestinians about the vision and legitimacy of their leaders.

His rapid promotions, his regular interaction with Israeli officials, and his wealth — his family owns a lucrative real estate and trading business — have made Mr. al-Sheikh a target of Palestinian criticism. One meme that circulated on social media showed a doctored photograph of his face superimposed on the body of an Israeli general.

The caption in Arabic read: “Spokesman for the occupation.”

Polls suggest that Mr. al-Sheikh would struggle mightily to win an election. Just 3 percent of Palestinians want him to be their next leader, according to the most recent one. Another suggested that nearly three-quarters of Palestinians opposed his May promotion to the No. 2 position in the Palestine Liberation Organization, the group that nominally oversees the Palestinian Authority.

But to his supporters, Mr. al-Sheikh is the right man for a difficult moment — a pragmatist who can improve daily life for Palestinians in an era when the grander goal of an independent state seems as remote as ever. He said in the interview that he does not think Israel is serious about ending the occupation, so Palestinians have no option other than to keep working within the current arrangement.

Ending relations with Israel or disbanding the Palestinian Authority might end in a security vacuum that would leave Palestinians even worse off than they are now, he said, speaking in his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

“If I were to dismantle the Palestinian Authority, what is the alternative?” Mr. al-Sheikh said. “The alternative is violence and chaos and bloodshed,” he added. “I know the consequences of that decision. I know the Palestinians would pay the price.”

Among other roles, his office works with Israel to process Palestinian applications for Israeli work permits and coordinate the passage of goods between the West Bank, Gaza, Israel and Jordan. Both those things provide much-needed income for West Bank residents.

Although he was appointed, not elected, to his new position, Mr. al-Sheikh said his background and track record give him the legitimacy to lead.

He was born in Ramallah in 1960 when Jordan controlled the West Bank. His family, who came from a village near Tel Aviv, were among some 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes during the wars surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948 — a mass displacement that Palestinians call the nakba, or catastrophe.

He was 6 when Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East war. As a teenager, he joined Fatah, the leading Palestinian militant group at the time. As a result, he spent much of the 1980s in Israeli jails, winning him street credibility.

After the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in the 1990s, he became a colonel in the newly formed Palestinian security services amid hopes that Palestinians were on the cusp of statehood.

“You are talking to someone whose entire history is about the struggle of the Palestinian people,” Mr. al-Sheikh said. “I know exactly how to lead my people to the right path.”

In 2007, he was appointed as the main Palestinian liaison to the Israeli military. A year later, he joined the leadership council of Fatah, the faction that dominates the Palestinian Authority and the P.L.O.

Over the next decade, while the Palestinian quest for independence faltered, Mr. al-Sheikh grew close to Mr. Abbas, frequently joining him at meetings with foreign leaders.

Mohammed Daraghmeh, a veteran Palestinian journalist, said Mr. al-Sheikh’s approach is the only one feasible for the current moment: recognizing that there’s no immediate chance of a Palestinian state, and doing what he can to stop things getting worse.

“In these circumstances, what else can he do?” Mr. Daraghmeh said. “The Palestinians are weak and divided, the Israelis are not giving them anything, the world is not helping.”

Many Palestinians appreciate at least some of what he does.

A June poll showed that nearly two-thirds of Palestinians supported recent confidence-building measures between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, partly coordinated by Mr. al-Sheikh.

He has been praised by both Israeli and American officials, said Daniel B. Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and a fellow at the Atlantic Council, an American research group.

“He’s a serious person and someone that U.S. officials have found they can work with,” said Mr. Shapiro. “Israeli officials have found the same.”

But some Palestinians resent him precisely for that, arguing that their institutions in the West Bank have become as much a subcontractor for the occupying power as a movement for national self-determination. The Palestinian security services quietly help Israeli intelligence agencies to target Palestinians accused of militant activity.

To rivals, Mr. al-Sheikh’s elevation — without public discussion and by presidential decree — embodies this democratic deficit in Palestinian politics.

“He’s not elected,” said Samer Sinijlawi, a leader of a rebel faction within Fatah. “His only source of power is Abbas. He will vanish once Abbas goes.”

The longstanding divides among Palestinians have prevented a united push for independence, reducing the prospects of an independent state to their lowest level in decades.

Peace negotiations with Israel stopped in 2014. Israeli settlements in the West Bank are more entrenched than ever. There is little U.S. pressure on Israel to break the impasse, and solidarity from other Arab leaders has dwindled, particularly after three Arab countries sealed diplomatic ties with Israel in 2020.

But many Palestinians feel their own leadership remains one of the biggest obstacles. A poll in June asked Palestinians what they considered their most pressing problem: One-quarter said it was the corruption of the Palestinian Authority.

With no functional parliament, Mr. Abbas writes laws and makes appointments by decree — including that of Mr. al-Sheikh.

Last September, 14 Palestinian police officers were charged with beating to death an anti-corruption activist, Nizar Banat, who was detained after he posted online criticism of the Palestinian Authority.

“It’s dictatorship,” said Nasser al-Kidwa, a former Palestinian foreign minister who broke with Mr. Abbas last year and now lives in exile. “It’s a situation that is so miserable, that we haven’t seen since the nakba.”

Raja Abdulrahim contributed reporting from Ramallah, West Bank, and Hiba Yazbek from Jerusalem.

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