July 18, 2022 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1644

Following Rumors That Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Is Ill, Palestinians Continue To Call For Establishing Arrangement For Transfer Of Power To New President

July 18, 2022 | By S. Schneidmann*
Palestinians | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1644

In the recent weeks there have been rumors that Mahmoud Abbas, the 86-year-old president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), is ill,[1] after in early June there were even rumors on social media that he had died. Amid the rumors, it was reported that Abbas has been preparing Hussein Al-Sheikh, the secretary-general of the PLO Executive Committee, to succeed him as president and is about to transfer some of his powers to Al-Sheikh. These rumors about Abbas' precarious health and about preparations for Al-Sheikh to replace him –  which were vehemently denied by elements in Fatah and the PLO – rekindled the debate in the Palestinian press as to who would replace Abbas  in the event of his departure or death.

The question of Abbas’s successor has been occupying the Palestinian public for years.[2]  Due to the constitutional crisis caused by the 2007 by the schism between Fatah and Hamas, and since no elections to the PA institutions have been held since then,[3] there is no agreed-upon mechanism for filling a vacancy in the position of president. The PA constitution states that, in the event of such a vacancy, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) serves as interim president until elections are held. However, Fatah is unlikely to allow such a move, since Hamas has a majority in the PLC, and also because the PLC was officially dissolved by Abbas in 2018.[4]

Perhaps in an attempt to address this problem, Abbas has been leading a controversial strategy in the recent years, the essence of which is using the PLO institutions to bypass the PLC, on the grounds that the PLO established the PA and is therefore the source of the PA's authority.[5] In 2018, the Palestinian National Council (PNC) authorized the PLO Central Council to serve as the PLO's legislative body, and it appears that Abbas and his supporters regard the Central Council as the legislative body not only of the PLO but also of the PA. Palestinian analysts assess that it will be one of the senior PLO officials, such as PNC Speaker Rawhi Fattouh or Executive Committee Secretary-General Hussein Al-Sheikh, who will succeed Abbas on a temporary or permanent basis in the event that he becomes incapacitated.[6]

Abbas himself has not yet officially named a successor or set up a definite mechanism for appointing one, but his intentions can perhaps be inferred from his actions and from reports in the Arab and Palestinian press that is not identified with the PA. The most conspicuous development in this context is the rapid promotion of PA Civil Affairs Minister and Fatah Central Committee member Hussein Al-Sheikh, who, according to knowledgeable sources, is Abbas's intended successor.[7]  

After the death of former PLO Executive Committee secretary-general Saeb Erekat in November 2020, the Palestinian opposition website Amad reported that Al-Sheikh had been appointed to replace him as the PLO’s chief negotiator, and that he was in fact carrying out the role of coordinating the PA's contacts with Israel and the U.S. The fact that Al-Sheikh began attending the Executive Committee meetings lent support to this claim.[8] In a February 2022 session of the PLO Central Council, Al-Sheikh was officially elected to the Executive Committee, and three months later, in May 2022, Abbas issued a presidential decree appointing him as the committee's secretary-general.[9]

The Lebanese Al-Akhbar daily reports that Fatah activists are angered by the aggressive promotion of Hussein Al-Sheikh as Abbas’s successor, and that, despite his senior official position, he does not enjoy widespread support in the movement.[10]  In addition to Al-Sheikh, no few other Fatah officials are eying the presidency,  including Central Committee secretary-general Jibril Al-Rajoub, General Intelligence chief Majed Faraj, and Central Committee member Marwan Al-Barghouti, who is serving five life-sentences in an Israeli prison for planning terror attacks during the Second Intifada in which many Israelis were killed. Speculating about the day after Abba's departure, many predict that there will be deals and power-struggles between officials in the ruling Fatah movement. Some sources report, for example, that Abbas’ associates Al-Sheikh and Faraj are already coordinating their moves and plan to divide Abbas’ powers between them, such that Al-Sheikh will assume the civil and political roles and Faraj the security roles.[11]  Other reports claim that, at the Eighth Fatah Convention (the date of which has not yet been set), the Fatah faction headed by Al-Sheikh and Faraj, which is supported by Abbas, plans to expel all the rival factions from the movement, including senior figures like Jibril Al-Rajoub and Marwan Al-Barghouti.[12] 

The uncertainty regarding the transfer of power, along with the rumors about Abbas' precarious health, have sparked intense concern among Palestinians, who fear that anarchy, power-struggles and even civil war may break out. Therefore, following the latest wave of rumors about a further deterioration of the President's health, articles in the Palestinian press called to settle the issue right now in order to prevent a state of anarchy. Many of the writers, among them opposition figures, stated that, regardless of the rumors, what should worry the Palestinian public and the Palestinian factions today is the absence of a clear and agreed-upon mechanism for transferring Abbas' powers to one or several successors, due to the absence of functioning Palestinian institutions. They urged Abbas, Fatah and all the Palestinian forces and organizations to address this matter immediately, for the future of the Palestinian people and the Palestinian cause is at stake.

Mahmoud 'Abbas (Source:

The following are translated excerpts from some of these articles:

Former PA Minister: President Abbas Must Appoint A Successor Before Leaving Office

Sufyan Abu Zaida, a former PA minister of prisoner affairs and a member of Muhammad Dahlan's faction in Fatah, which opposes Abbas' policies as PA president, urged Abbas to settle the issue of his successor. In an article he posted on his Facebook page, he argued that the situation today is different form the situation that prevailed before the death of the previous PA president, Yasser Arafat, and will not allow for a smooth transition of power. Abu Zaida wrote: "There has been a flood of reports on social media and various news sites about the state of President Abbas' health.  Regardless of the reliability of these reports – because there is a general feeling that people mistrust both the official and the unofficial claims, i.e., the claims of both the [PA] and the opposition… – the reports have increased the confusion, the anger, the speculations and the commentary. [Everyone] is trying to answer the question that every Palestinian is asking… and every intelligence apparatus in the world and the region, hostile or friendly, is asking, namely what scenario or scenarios might unfold on the day after [Abbas' departure]. Whether it happens in a month, a year, or more, this day will surely come, and then Fatah, the PLO, the PA, the [other] Palestinian factions and the [entire] region will have to address this unavoidable issue.   

"At the moment, nobody in the universe can answer this question with certainty and without facing dozens of issues that remain unresolved, or whose answers are disputed from a legal, national, political and organizational point of view. This complicates the picture and the scenarios… and not just because there are so many elements operating in the Palestinian arena, each of which is trying to affect the course of events, and not just because there are so many many rival candidates, all of whom consider themselves eligible to undertake Abbas' role, or at least some of his roles. The difficulty of guessing what will happen indeed stems from the complicated nature of the Palestinian arena on all levels. But it also stems from the situation in the region and the world, and from the fact that interest in the Palestinian issue has been waning, especially over the past two decades, due to developments that the world sees as more important…  

"The current data and assessments indicate that the Palestinian people and the Palestinian political system will not be able to handle the departure of President Abbas as easily as they overcame the trauma of the departure of the eternal president Yasser Arafat. The reason is that, back then, the procedures set out in the Palestinian constitution were followed to the letter. After Arafat's death, then-PLC speaker Rawhi Fattouh became president for 60 days, during which the presidential elections were held, resulting in the election of President Abbas on January 15, 2005. In the next stage a government was formed, headed by Abu 'Alaa, [i.e., Ahmad] Qurei. As the secretary-general of the PLO Executive Committee, President Abbas became the PLO’s leader without [having to] compete with any rivals for this position. He also became the number one man in Fatah, after being elected as chair of this movement even before the holding of the Sixth Convention and without facing any real competition [for the role].

After the departure of President Abu Amar [Yasser Arafat] from the scene, there was no controversy regarding his successor, because in the previous years Abu Mazen [i.e., Mahmoud Abbas] had been recognized as the number two man in the PLO, and to some extent also in Fatah, since he was one of Fatah's historical founders. Therefore, there was no succession war and no problem [for him to run] for the PA presidency in free and fair elections, for he had no real competition. Hamas, which could have participated [in the election] by nominating one of its leaders as a candidate, refrained from doing so, and President Abbas was elected without any difficulties in the Palestinian arena.

"[But] today we are very far from that near-ideal situation, for several reasons:

"A. After the death of the eternal Yasser 'Arafat, there was a functioning PLC… and, in accordance with the constitution, its speaker became [interim] president for 60 days, [during which the new] PA president was elected. [But] today the PLC is paralyzed and in practice non-existent, and therefore it has no active speaker. Even if its former speaker, council member 'Aziz Dweik, claims he still holds that position, this claim is controversial, because the law states that the speaker must be elected by the council members every year…

"B. Some might say that the PLO is the source of the PA's authority, and that therefore, in the absence of an operating PLC, the chair of the [PLO's] PNC should become the interim PA president in the case of a vacancy, until elections can be held. Alternatively, the secretary-general of the [PLO] Executive Committee, who was appointed by President Abbas [i.e., Hussein Al-Sheikh], must become president until the election. But [both these alternatives] will be controversial and bereft of any legal or judicial basis, because the PNC speaker was not elected by the institution he heads… and the same is true for the secretary of the Executive Committee. The objections will not be to the figures [themselves] but to the legal status of the process…

"C. Some might say, 'fine, everything begins and ends with Fatah, so if Fatah can get its affairs in order, there will be no problem handling the Palestinian arena when the era of President Abbas comes to an end. One theory holds that Fatah's central pillars, i.e., its senior leaders, could agree [to divide the roles between them]: one would become head of Fatah, another would become  head of the PLO, and a third would become PA president. Such an agreement would be a very positive move and would prevent a struggle within Fatah and bring the Palestinian [ship] to a safe haven… [But,] as of this moment, there is no indication that such an agreement between the senior Fatah leaders is possible, because there are more than three of them, and most of the Central Committee members regard themselves as suitable for one of the [three] roles.  

"And I have not yet mentioned [Central Committee member] Marwan Al-Barghouti, who is incarcerated in one of the occupation prisons, or [former Central Committee member] Muhammad Dahlan, whose possible return [to the country] may change the picture and cause an upheaval, since yesterday's rivals may become tomorrow's allies. Nor have I mentioned [former Central Committee member] Nasser Al-Qidwa.[13] Everyone understands that, in the post-Abbas [era], Fatah will have to be reorganized and its crises will have to be resolved if it wishes to continue on the path to the future…

"If the departure of President Abbas from the scene is just a matter of time, and if there is no scenario for a legitimate and lawful [transfer of power] due to the absence of the PLC and due to the Palestinian schism, and if there is no possibility that Fatah should reach understandings on rearranging its organizations and leadership – how then can there be a solution?

"I think that Fatah must take the first step by reorganizing itself and all its components and rivalries. I do not mean just the faction of [Nasser] Al-Qidwa and Marwan [Al-Barghouti], that is a mistaken perception. Fatah's problem is much larger than that… It is not in good shape… Uniting it and resolving its crises is a crucial step that must be taken before any other steps towards putting the Palestinian house in order. In addition, there is no choice but to renew the efforts, the contacts and the mediation towards attaining a Palestinian reconciliation [between Fatah and Hamas]…

"I had hoped that President Abbas would achieve all this before leaving the scene, especially the [goals of] uniting Fatah, ending the schism and holding elections to the presidency, the PLC and the PNC – so as to spare the Palestinian people [the chaos that is likely to ensue] in the wake of his departure. It is not too late. Even tonight, [President Abbas] can announce moves that will upend all the speculations, confound the enemies and gladden our friends and allies. He can be the one to lay down the foundations for the next stage, so that the Palestinians have good memories of him. Do it, honorable Mr. President."[14] 

Palestinian Journalist: If We Had A Functioning Democracy, Presidential Succession Wouldn't Have Been A Problem

'Abd Al-Majid Sweilem, a political analyst and a columnist for the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam, stated that all the preoccupation with rumors deflects attention from the Palestinian's acute problem, which is the absence of a functioning democracy to regulate the process of presidential succession. He wrote: "In the recent days, a persistent war of rumors has largely dominated the public's attention. The rumors focus on the health of President Abu Mazen and on [the identity of] his successor… These rumors were followed by others, about an imminent replacement of the government, and in particular of the prime minister. Names began to be thrown around, with guesses and speculations regarding [potential] candidates…[15] 

"I don't think the committee established [by Fatah] to find the source of these rumors will come up with significant findings any time soon,[16] and even if it does, I do not believe it will lead to anything significant. The sources are likely to be Palestinian, powerful elements inside and outside Fatah, whose interest in spreading these rumors coincided with those of [external elements] that seek to harm the Palestinian arena. I really do not believe that Israel was trying to send up trial balloons by interfering in the spread of these rumors… It was Palestinians who spread them, deliberately and calculatingly, and leaked them to the Israeli media in order to deflect suspicion from themselves…

'[But] the gravest aspect in all these events, in my opinion, is the inability to acknowledge the true source of the crisis afflicting us, and the attempts to hint that selecting successors for the president and prime minister [will solve] the crisis and that this specific decision is the key to handling it. This is a deception with no basis in reality. The true crisis of [our] national reality is the ongoing schism. As tends to happen, this schism has become the norm, to the extent that discussion about reuniting the national institutions has become a thing of the distant past…

"[Furthermore,] should the issue of presidential succession really be causing us such a big problem? Why are we experiencing this kind of problem? Would we be facing this sort of crisis if an established and stable democratic regime had existed? If a reform had been undertaken in the PLO, if the PA had focused on its own spheres [of activity, instead of infringing on other institutions], if our PNC had convened regularly and the [PLO] Central Council had convened in accordance with the statutes… if the PLO Executive Committee had actually been leading the people and functioning as a supreme authority in the period between sessions of the [PLO] Central [Council] – [if all this had happened,] would there have been such a crisis over [the issues of] succession, of a presidential vacancy, or even of replacing the government and its head? What has prevented the appointment of a vice president to date…? Why has the Fatah Central Committee not managed to define this [role]? What is the role of the PLO and of the major factions in this entire vortex?...

"The state is sinking into a deep crisis due to the absence of institutions and the shattering of the political system; because the authorities [i.e. the PA and Hamas] rule tyrannically in both [the West Bank and Gaza], to the satisfaction of Israel, and because here [in the West Bank] democracy is absent, and there [in Gaza] it is [actually] forbidden… Our crisis is much larger than the rumors and the problems related to them, and deeper than the [problems of the] president’s illness and the identity of the [next] prime minister."[17]

Palestinian Politician: The Health Of The President And The Identity Of His Successor Are National Issues; The People Have The Right To Decide Them

Nihad Abu-Ghosh, a member of the PNC and a columnist for the Al-Quds daily, argued that the issue of Abbas' successor is a national issue of the first order. He addeed that the Palestinian factions should therefore conduct themselves responsibly, convene the PLO Central Council, and agree on an interim president, rather than busy themselves with rumors and mutual accusations. He wrote, "In the recent days, Palestinian public opinion, along with many media agencies and research centers in the region and the world, has been preoccupied with [rumors] that President Mahmoud Abbas was ill – or even dead, according to other stories and rumors – and also with his possible successors…

"The state of the president’s health and the matter of his successor are clearly national issues which affect the entire Palestinian people everywhere, and affect the future of the national Palestinian cause and the entire region… There is a real crisis in the decision-making apparatus that stems from the health of the Palestinian political system… This crisis, [in turn], stems from the mixing of the roles of the PLO and PA institutions and from the erosion of their legitimacy due to the fact that no elections have been held. It has come to the point that some of these institutions are paralyzed and ineffectual, while the institution of the presidency dominates [the scene]…

"The president's illness is not a private matter pertaining only to his honorable family, nor is it a partisan political matter concerning [only] the Fatah movement, which the president leads. Its impact is not limited to the [senior] political echelons. Since the matter affects the political future of the Palestinian people and its national rights, it is the people that has the right to settle every issue and dispute [related to the identity of the next president] by means of their institutions of elected representatives. However, since these institutions are currently absent or paralyzed, all the forces, institutions, organizations, and figures that see to the interests of the people must search for creative options and solutions…

"It is impossible to hold the president, or the so-called political echelon, exclusively responsible for the deterioration of the institutions of Palestinian leadership. This situation is a consequence of the [political] system created by the Oslo Accords,  and of the way in which our Palestinian political and social issues have been managed – which caused the institutions to be sidelined in favor of an autocracy, and caused the PLO institutions to be absorbed by the PA, which is meant to be subordinate to the PLO… All the Palestinian political forces bear some of the responsibility for this – each  according to its weight and influence and [the extent of] its participation or lack of participation in [the political life of the PA]. The opposition in its full spectrum bears the major responsibility for the situation that prevails, because each part of it preferred to follow its own plan and [political] strategy, without contributing to building a unified political system with active institutions… All these forces preferred to follow a system of deals and [job-]allocations based on a predetermined ratio, rather than compete [for them] in a constructive and democratic way…

"It is possible that [when Abbas departs] the legitimate representative institutions, such as the PNC or the [PLO] Central Council, will convene [to settle the matter of  succession]… However, this practice – of convening the institutions only when they are needed to ratify something, and denying them their authority for the rest of the year – does not respect the people or their will. Any decision arrived at by the leadership must be collective and mutually agreed upon, as far as possible, [by all the political forces], and should also be temporary, until the people can be consulted by holding general elections…"[18]


* S. Schneidmann is a research fellow at MEMRI


[1] An investigative article recently published in the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar claimed that Abbas has been suffering for decades from several chronic conditions and that he is under constant medical observation. Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), June 21, 2022.

[3] The last PA presidential election was held in 2005 and the last election to the Palestinian Legislative Council was held in 2006. Therefore, according to the Palestinian constitution, the terms of these two bodies expired in 2009 and 2010, respectively.

[5] It should be noted that the PLO institutions are not elected directly by the people,  and are effectively controlled by supporters of Abbas in Fatah and its satellite movements. 

[6] See e.g., assessments by political scientist Jihad Harb., June 9, 2022.

[7] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 6, 2022. It has also been reported that, while grooming Al-Sheikh as his successor, Abbas has also been strengthening the position of Palestinian General Intelligence chief Majed Faraj, with the backing of the U.S. and the CIA. Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), December 12, 2020, August 13, 2021.

[8], February 17, 2021;, June 7, 2021. Al-Sheikh’s position as chief negotiator became official recently when was appointed head of the PLO’s Negotiations Affairs Department., June 25, 2022.

[9], February 7, 2022, May 26, 2022. The Palestinian news agency Quds and the Qatari daily Al-‘Arabi Al-Jadid report that Abbas has been appointing PLO officials himself, without any significant discussion in the Fatah institutions, and that the Fatah Central Committee is merely a rubber stamp for the president’s decisions., January 19, 2022; Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), January 24, 2022. It has also been reported that the PLO Executive Committee is likewise felt by many to be an empty institution whose decisions are effectively taken independently by Abbas, and that this is what prompted one of its prominent members, Hanan ‘Ashrawi, to resign from it in December 2020., December 9, 2020.

[10] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), June 6, 2022.

[11] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), January 20, 2022;, May 31, 2022.

[12] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 9, 2022, March 11, 2022;, February 27, 2022, March 7, 2022.

[13] Al-Qidwa and Muhammad Dahlan, both of them opponents of Abbas, were dismissed from their positions and expelled from Fatah based on a decision by Abbas.

[14], June 5, 2022.

[15] “Senior sources” denied the rumors that Prime Minister Muhammad Shtayyeh and  Finance Minister Shukri Bishara have recently tendered their resignations to President Abbas. Al-Quds (East Jerusalem),  May 30, 2022, Al-Ayyam (PA), May 31, 2022.

[16] The Amad website, identified with the Palestinian opposition, reported that “Ramallah” had ordered to investigate the source of the leak about Abbas transferring powers to Hussein Al-Sheikh. The  website relied on a report by the Israeli daily Israel Hayom, which cited a "Palestinian source.”, June 5, 2022.

[17] Al-Ayyam (PA), June 9, 2022.

[18] Al-Quds (East Jerusalem), June 12, 2022.

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