The Palestinian Leader Who Survived the Death of Palestine
What would it mean for Hussein al-Sheikh to lead a people whose dream of independence is no longer alive?
Palestinian politician Hussein al-Sheikh strode into a fortified conference room in the towering Tel Aviv headquarters of Israel’s Defense Ministry in February 2022. Few Palestinians enter the inner sanctum of Israel’s military, but, as Sheikh recalled, he was greeted by the top army brass and the leadership of the secretive Shin Bet intelligence apparatus.
Palestinian politician Hussein al-Sheikh strode into a fortified conference room in the towering Tel Aviv headquarters of Israel’s Defense Ministry in February 2022. Few Palestinians enter the inner sanctum of Israel’s military, but, as Sheikh recalled, he was greeted by the top army brass and the leadership of the secretive Shin Bet intelligence apparatus.
The tall, affable Sheikh—whose salt-and-pepper hair is slicked back with gel—serves as the Palestinian Authority’s main go-between with Israel in the occupied West Bank. He speaks fluent Hebrew, wears finely tailored suits, and urges cooperating, not clashing, with Israel. Once a teenage activist jailed by Israel, the Rolex-sporting, globe-trotting official now works behind the scenes to prevent the collapse of the PA, led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Israeli power brokers admire Sheikh as a pragmatic partner with an uncanny ability to find common ground. “He’s our man in Ramallah,” said one retired senior Israeli security official who requested anonymity due to an ongoing role in Israeli intelligence as a reservist. Many Palestinians, however, argue his approach has only reinforced the conflict’s status quo—a seemingly endless military occupation now in its sixth decade.
Sitting with Israel’s generals, Sheikh recounted an emotional visit with his grandmother to the ruins of their hometown of Deir Tarif in central Israel. She spotted a cluster of orange trees she had planted before she was uprooted and her village destroyed in the 1948 war. She embraced them and wept, he said.
With negotiations to end Israeli rule over the Palestinians long moribund, Sheikh told the generals that even he had found himself looking into the mirror, wondering whether he was making a mistake by continuing to cooperate with Israel. “If there’s no partner on the Israeli side who believes in peace and two states for two peoples, am I betraying my grandmother’s tears?” Sheikh told them. “Can you imagine what an ordinary Palestinian, living in a refugee camp, feels?”
Three decades after Israeli-Palestinian peace talks created the PA, many Palestinians no longer believe it will become an independent state. An increasingly right-wing Israel doesn’t intend to end its occupation anytime soon. The international community has checked out. And Palestinians remain divided between Abbas’s secular Fatah party, which controls the West Bank, and the Islamist Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip.
Palestinians in the West Bank wait at checkpoints during the day and witness Israeli troops raid their neighborhoods at night. They increasingly say the PA—which administers Palestinian cities and arrests militants who plan attacks on Israelis—exists to do the dirty work of Israel’s occupation.
For many, Sheikh is the man doing that dirty work. He is the face of the PA’s elite, who experience what one former Palestinian official living in the West Bank labeled a “VIP occupation.” Senior Palestinian officials are waved through Israeli roadblocks and rake in hefty salaries that fund palm tree-lined villas in the desert city of Jericho and extravagant escapades in Europe. Their children party in Haifa and Jaffa, Israeli cities most Palestinians are barred from reaching.
“The Palestinian elite are the true beneficiaries of the peace process,” said Ghandi al-Rabi, a prominent Ramallah-based lawyer.
The battle to succeed the 87-year-old Abbas has many contenders, none of whom are a shoo-in. But Sheikh stands a chance of becoming the next leader of the PA, despite his unpopularity, thanks to his close ties to Israel and the United States.
Over nine months, Foreign Policy interviewed 75 Palestinians, Israelis, Americans, and Europeans, including officials, diplomats, businesspeople, and rights advocates, who painted a picture of Sheikh’s rise to the highest echelons of Palestinian decision-making.
In a rare, two-hour interview in his penthouse office in Ramallah, Sheikh acknowledged the chasm between the Palestinian leadership and public. “The Authority isn’t able to deliver a political horizon for the people. The Authority isn’t able to resolve the people’s financial and economic problems from the occupation,” he said. “But what’s the alternative to the PA? Chaos and violence.”
U.S. officials contrast Sheikh favorably with other Palestinian politicians, whom they call long-winded and obstinate. During his last meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden, Abbas droned on “ad nauseam for 25 minutes before he let Biden utter a word,” said one senior administration official who was not authorized to speak about the meeting. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh often subjects visiting dignitaries to 40-minute lectures on history and international law, U.S. and European diplomats said. As for Sheikh, “when you go into a room with him, you can tell he’s really, truly eager for solutions,” the administration official said. One European diplomat in the region described him as “a fixer who wants to solve problems, not theorize about them.”
But “he is about as popular with the Palestinian people as the Shah was in January 1979,” the administration official said, referring to the corrupt and authoritarian leader of Iran before a revolution brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power.
Sheikh’s life story traces the Palestinian national movement’s decades-long march toward the current impasse. He was 7 when Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, imprisoned at 17, and released as a popular uprising swept the West Bank in the late 1980s.
After the PA’s establishment in the 1990s, Sheikh slowly rose through its ranks. He served in the nascent Palestinian security forces before assuming his current role—the head of the General Authority of Civil Affairs—in 2007. His ministry handles ties with Israel, including the Israeli permits that allow Palestinians to circumvent restrictions on their movement.
His journey from leather jacket-wearing street activist to detested official has paralleled an ever-widening gap between the Palestinian government and its people, who no longer believe their leaders will free them from occupation, let alone build a democratic state.
Sheikh works closely with Israel to prevent Palestinian attacks on Israelis. He negotiates with Israeli officials to upgrade outdated Palestinian infrastructure. The 62-year-old leader says it’s all necessary to preserve an increasingly distant hope that Palestinians will one day achieve freedom.
“We need to narrow the wide gap between us,” said Sheikh, comparing his approach to seizing one apple instead of an unreachable bundle of four. “So, however small the accomplishment is, it is important.”
The fragile edifice of the PA rests on the shoulders of Abbas, who was first elected to a four-year term in 2005 and now rules by autocratic fiat. But Sheikh has hardly concealed his desire to succeed Abbas, drawing ire from opponents who accuse him of acting as if he has already become president. He has ramped up his online presence and transformed himself into the PA’s public face, crisscrossing Ramallah in a Mercedes-Benz flanked by a large security detail.
But few say he could be viewed as a legitimate leader. Like others in Abbas’s inner circle, Sheikh “began as part of the people but has become totally isolated. For large portions of the public, he represents everything that has gone wrong with the Palestinian Authority: out of touch, corrupt, and tied to Israel,” said Tamir Hayman, who led Israeli military intelligence until 2021. “You can’t impose a Karzai” on the Palestinians, said former Palestinian diplomat Mohammed Odeh, referring to the U.S.-backed Afghan president from 2002 to 2014.
During his February 2022 meeting with the Israeli generals, Sheikh said the decision to move toward a better future rested with them. It was a stark admission of the vast power differential between the decorated security chiefs and the PA, one that Sheikh had operated in for years. But it was also a refusal to consider what Palestinian leaders could do to change their people’s painful present. The gathering eventually brought Palestinians a few small concessions—but nowhere nearer to independence.
Sheikh’s childhood was spent in a middle-class home in a West Bank unrecognizable to Palestinians today. There were almost no Israeli settlements in the first post-occupation years, no suit-clad Palestinian ambassadors and ministers bearing the emblazoned sigil of their stillborn PA, no gray separation wall snaking over the rugged hills.
For decades after 1967, Israel ruled the territory directly. Israeli military governors presided over Palestinian cities, assuming responsibility for keeping the streets clean and managing hospitals. Palestinians opened accounts at Israeli banks in Khan Yunis and Nablus. The beating heart of the Palestinian struggle was abroad—in Jordan, Lebanon, anywhere but Palestine.
Some Palestinians look back at those days with nostalgia. One could hop into a car and drive from Gaza to the border with Lebanon without stopping at a checkpoint, many recall, or fly easily out of Israel’s airport. Today, such simple privileges are out of reach for most Palestinians.
Ramallah, now swollen by an influx of international aid to the PA, was still a modest collection of homes and businesses when Sheikh was a child. His father, Shehada, ran a wholesale food shop tucked into the rolling hillsides near the old town’s limestone churches. His extended family—the Tarifis—had a history of close ties with the Israelis. His relative Jamil, a wealthy businessman who owned quarries, leveraged his relationship with Israeli officials to get permits and privileges for Palestinians he knew. In a sense, Sheikh inherited the family business: liaising between Israeli authorities and Palestinians.
But Sheikh first joined the struggle against Israeli rule as a teenager. In 1978, he was sentenced to eleven years in prison after he joined a cell involved in attacks against Israelis, although he said he didn’t commit acts of violence. (Israel’s military says it has lost its records of his trial.) He later recounted to visiting Israeli officials how his sentence broke his father’s heart. “I never saw him tell the story without tearing up,” recalled a second retired senior Israeli official who met with him frequently.
The monotony of incarceration inspired Sheikh to educate himself about Israel. He spent hours daily poring over books and newspapers in Hebrew and practicing speaking with guards, eventually becoming fluent. (During our interview, Sheikh mainly spoke in Arabic, but he seemed at his most expressive when sharing stories in Hebrew.) He later taught the language to other prisoners.
“I didn’t know anything about Israel,” he said. “I would see Israeli soldiers in my town, near my home’s front door. But what is Israel? I studied all of that in prison.”
Sheikh was not a top leader among Palestinian prisoners, who spearheaded hunger strikes and protests while behind bars, said fellow inmates. But his drive to make a name for himself in Palestinian politics was evident. “Hussein has an idea that the person who isn’t ambitious is dead. Only the dead don’t have goals,” said Jihad Tummaleh, a Fatah activist who did time with him.
By the time Sheikh left prison, the First Intifada, or uprising, was in full swing. A few years later, Israel and the PLO negotiated the Oslo Accords, which saw Israel withdraw from some parts of the West Bank and Gaza and hand some responsibility to the newly created PA. The semi-autonomous body began overseeing basic services to Palestinians such as education and health care. But it was largely confined to Palestinian cities, and most of the West Bank and Gaza remained under direct Israeli control.
Sheikh spent a few years searching for his place in the new order created by the rapprochement between Israel and the Palestinians. He did stints as a colonel in an intelligence service known for rooting out opponents such as Hamas and in the police. He eventually wound up as a minor activist in Fatah’s grassroots cadres.
Sheikh’s fluency in Hebrew gave him an edge in building close ties with Israeli officials. As a young officer in the security forces between 1994 and 1997, Sheikh translated between Palestinian and Israeli officials at joint meetings. In a move unthinkable nearly 30 years later, he even traveled to an Israeli high school in the wealthy Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat HaSharon to lecture Israeli teenagers about Israeli-Palestinian cooperation and the possibility of peace.
“He put it to them in perfect Hebrew,” said Yoni Fighel, a former military governor of Ramallah, who taught at the school and invited Sheikh.
The halcyon days of Oslo didn’t last. The collapse of peace talks at Camp David in 2000 was followed by protests at Al-Aqsa Mosque. Clashes soon erupted across Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, setting the stage for the violence of the Second Intifada. But even Israeli security officials agree Sheikh assiduously avoided taking part. “Hussein was in the Fatah leadership and did all sorts of bullshit but wasn’t a fighter or a commander on the ground,” said Shalom Ben-Hanan, a retired senior officer in the Shin Bet.
The Second Intifada shattered the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which never fully recovered, and emboldened the country’s hawkish right wing. The deadlock has empowered officials like Sheikh, whose job is more about permits than peace talks.
By 2017, Sheikh had become the gatekeeper to Abbas, alongside the saturnine intelligence chief Majed Faraj. The duo have formed what some Palestinian officials call a closed circle around Abbas, who has grown intolerant of criticism.
Officials in Abbas’s office say Sheikh sits beside the president on flights, taking notes in a small notebook of what he tells him and then later reiterating them in meetings with foreign dignitaries. He has become close to members of Abbas’s family, appearing in a photo with a grandson of the president last August who described him as a “national leader.” (“It is a particular ability to kiss ass, lie, brown-nose, and bullshit,” said Nasser al-Kidwa, a former member of the Fatah leadership-turned-Abbas critic. “And always to convince Abu Mazen that he’s God—‘Your points are amazing, Mr. President.’”)
Abu Mazen, or Abbas, has enabled Sheikh’s rise because he favors advisors incapable of challenging his authority, Palestinian analysts said. The president could easily dispose of him should he fall out of favor, Kidwa said. “He is a little bug beside him,” he said. “If Abu Mazen changes his position tomorrow, Sheikh will be over.”
In December, Sheikh was heard berating Abbas as the “son of 66 whores” in a recording leaked to Palestinian media. The choice to leak the tape was a telling indication that Sheikh’s rivals regard Abbas as his main source of strength. Sheikh dismissed the tapes as fabrications aimed at “undermining national unity.”
Personal ties aside, Abbas and Sheikh share a commitment to a negotiated solution with Israel and a suspicion of their Hamas rivals, who wrested control of Gaza in a 2007 coup. In a 2017 meeting with U.S. officials, Sheikh shouted that advancing a deal to reconcile Fatah and Hamas would end in the Islamist group’s rockets flying over his head, the senior Biden administration official said.
“I’m a total believer in Abu Mazen’s plan and approach,” Sheikh told Foreign Policy. “He trusts me. I thank him for this trust.”
Even today Sheikh reiterates his opposition to attacks on Israelis, which he says play into Israel’s hands. “I’m for resisting the occupation. I’m totally against harming civilians,” he said. “I support resisting the Israeli occupation, and I still believe in that. But how?”
Sheikh functions in a “schizophrenic situation” while “sitting on the knife’s edge and trying to operate in all worlds at the same time,” said Nickolay Mladenov, a former top Middle East peace envoy for the United Nations.
“You have to deliver services to your people, knowing very well that people are going to oppose you because you’re not taking them toward the two-state solution that you have promised them for such a long time,” Mladenov said.
In recent months, Sheikh has focused on restoring calm amid the bloodiest armed clashes since the Second Intifada. Israeli forces have killed more than 140 Palestinians, militants and civilians, this year; Palestinian assailants have killed at least 25 Israelis, mostly civilians.
The rising violence reflects widespread despair among Palestinians. Young Palestinians have never voted in a national election, yet the political elite seems more focused on who will replace the aging Abbas than reforming the broken system. Meanwhile, the militants confronting Israeli soldiers in Nablus’s old city or the Jenin refugee camp enjoy a popularity that PA leaders such as Sheikh can only fantasize about.
While Palestinian officials boast of having built a “State of Palestine,” what actually exists is a thin veneer of statehood—government ministries that mostly serve as platforms for officials to distribute cushy positions, coveted contracts, and permits that sidestep Israel’s military rule. “What we have today is the remnants of the national project,” said political analyst Jehad Harb.
The misery of the occupation permeates Palestinian life, but the hypocrisy of the Palestinian leadership—calling for justice on the world stage while corruption and autocracy proliferate at home—adds another layer of frustration. And Palestinians who criticize their leaders online or organize protests are often arrested—or worse.
In June 2021, Palestinian security officers allegedly beat critic Nizar Banat to death. The killing sparked rare demonstrations that were dispersed by plainclothes thugs who viciously attacked journalists and protesters. The PA has called Banat’s death a mistake and put a number of security officers on trial, but critics contend that it has dragged on.
“The occupation has played the first and foremost role in our suffering, but, little by little, the Authority has become a parallel burden through its repression of political activists and civil society, widespread corruption, and anti-democratic legal decrees,” said Muhannad Karaja, a human rights lawyer who has represented dissidents jailed for criticizing the government. In March, the PA froze his legal practice’s license in what Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, called “the latest in its systematic efforts to muzzle dissent.”
Palestinian leaders struggle to respond to the public’s discontent. “We’re not angels,” said Fatah official Sabri Saidam, adding that attempts to discuss the failings of Palestinian governance were a distraction from the struggle against Israel’s occupation. Others refrain from blasting the government but offer some introspection. “I sometimes defend the Authority and its leaders, and I know I’m wrong,” said Azzam al-Ahmad, a longtime top Fatah member, acknowledging that he has advocated for things he “doesn’t believe in.”
Sheikh said instances of repression and graft were aberrations. “Look, I don’t say our performance is 100 percent,” he said. But for many Palestinians, these supposed aberrations are bound up with the very system over which Sheikh presides.
Israel tightly regulates Palestinian movement. Anyone who wants to travel to Jerusalem to pray at Al-Aqsa or eat at fish restaurants in Jaffa needs a permit issued by the Israeli military. But Israel allows a privileged slice of the Palestinian elite to move freely through its territory, bypassing restrictions that embitter the broader public.
So-called VIP permits allow high-ranking Palestinian officials to cross through checkpoints normally reserved for Israelis. Wealthy businesspeople can apply for a “businessman card,” or BMC, a pass that provides nearly unfettered access to Israel and its international airport near Tel Aviv.
On the Palestinian side, Sheikh’s Civil Affairs office is responsible for doling out the exclusive Israeli permits—and many Palestinians in Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Tulkarem tell stories about a friend or a neighbor paying for them. “When you talk to Palestinians, they’ll tell you: corrupt, corrupt, corrupt,” Ben-Hanan said, referring to Sheikh. (Our reporting didn’t indicate Sheikh’s direct involvement in alleged instances of corruption.)
When merchants approach officials in Sheikh’s ministry about obtaining a BMC, they might be asked to provide favors or cash, according to several leading businesspeople. “With increased demand, some people offer things to sweeten the deal,” said Samir Hazboun, the secretary-general of the union of chambers of commerce.
Some government officials, Hazboun added, have told applicants: “Fix up our offices, set up air-condition units for us, and you’ll get your BMC.” Other officials have taken $10,000 bribes, he said. In a 2022 survey by the Ramallah-based Coalition for Accountability and Integrity, nearly a quarter of Palestinians reported having paid a bribe or offered a gift, or a relative having done so, in exchange for receiving a public service.
“People use their connections to get away with a lot,” said Samir Abuznaid, a former chairman of the PA’s government accountability office.
Palestinian Social Development Minister Ahmad Majdalani dismissed allegations of rampant government corruption. “These stories that you’re sharing with me are trivial,” he said. Sheikh contended that he had sought to address the problem and denied that corruption was widespread. When confronted with specific claims of graft in his ministry, he issued a full-throated denial. “Do you have any idea how many people I sent to the prosecutor’s office?” Sheikh said regarding corruption claims. He did not answer questions about how many people he had referred to justice officials but asserted he has followed each case closely and even attended hearings.
For their part, Israeli officials described receiving reams of complaints about corruption in Civil Affairs from Palestinians and nonprofit workers. But as long as the PA cracks down on Palestinian militants, many in Israel see little reason to intervene, said Kobi Lavy, a former Palestinian affairs advisor to the Civil Administration, the Israeli occupation’s bureaucratic arm.
“The Palestinians tell us: ‘If the situation wasn’t comfortable for Israel, you would put a stop to it,’” said Lavy, adding that he had raised reports of corruption with disinterested superiors. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t sound nice to say, but they’re right. If there’s no terrorism from them, who cares.”
The crooked practices, businesspeople said, extend to the government’s distribution of lucrative licenses, often given to friends and relatives of senior officials. The licenses, used to operate gas stations, import cigarettes, and run other businesses, enrich the well-connected.
A Palestinian entrepreneur described how he brought two members of Sheikh’s family into his business as “fictional partners”—a practice business leaders said was a commonplace tool to overcome red tape. One partner made a minor contribution to the company, the other none at all, the businessman said, as he flicked through registration documents bearing one of their names and WhatsApp conversations.
Using their association with Sheikh, the family members helped the businessman acquire a permit and evade regulatory hurdles. In exchange, they took a share of the business’s proceeds. “Without them, the business wouldn’t have moved forward,” he said. “His family are a government body all to themselves.” (The businessman requested that details related to his business be withheld in order to shield him from retribution by the PA.) Sheikh didn’t respond to a request for comment, sent to his chief of staff, about his family members’ business activities.
Business leaders say the schemes reflect how the Palestinian ruling class dominates almost every aspect of life. “Unfortunately, Palestine has become a playground for criminals,” said Hisham Massad, a former head of the Jenin Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “Everywhere else, corruption is under the table. Here, it’s in plain view.”
The perceived favoritism in Sheikh’s ministry breeds resentment, especially among Palestinians in the West Bank living in fear of deportation to Gaza because their identity cards say they live in the enclave. For years, Israel mostly didn’t authorize residency changes between the West Bank and Gaza, leaving them at risk of deportation. Sheikh told U.S. officials that Israel only granted exceptions to officials “as favors to the PA leadership,” according to a 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable. (Israel and Egypt’s long-lasting blockade of Gaza makes life there harder for most Palestinians than in the West Bank.)
In 2021, the previous Israeli government announced that it would update the addresses of thousands of Palestinians, lifting them out of years of limbo. Throngs crowded into Civil Affairs offices to update their documents, but the process was marred by accusations of nepotism.
Senior official Mahmoud al-Habbash changed his address to the West Bank along with 17 family members, data from ministry records showed. His assistant and brother-in-law, Khaled Baroud, and at least 10 of his family members also received the update. Habbash said his family had applied for address changes through Civil Affairs since 2009 and didn’t exploit his connections. Baroud didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“Israel is the primary address in denying Palestinians their basic rights, but it’s frustrating and infuriating that people can’t rely on the Authority to look out for their interests appropriately,” said Jessica Montell, the executive director of HaMoked, an Israeli organization that supports Palestinian residency rights. “It seems obvious that they are making these decisions in a nepotistic way.”
Yet it is Sheikh’s alleged mistreatment of women that may pose the most significant challenge to his desire to succeed Abbas. Most scandals go back several years but have nonetheless sullied his image. Some are unsubstantiated rumors, but at least one appears to reveal the impunity enjoyed by senior officials. Sheikh’s purported treatment of an employee in his office in 2012 led to a formal complaint, an investigation that drew in Abbas, and ended with a previously unreported hush payment of $100,000, according to a Palestinian official, a person close to the complainant at the time, and others familiar with the case.
According to those familiar with the case and media reports from the time, when he summoned a young IT officer in his ministry to his office to fix a computer error in 2012, he verbally harassed her, commenting on her looks. She told interlocutors that she rebuffed Sheikh. Undeterred, he proceeded to touch her, the officials said. She described quickly rejecting the move and crying out in protest before storming out of the room, they said.
In a rare move, the IT officer’s husband, a member of an influential militia affiliated with the ruling Fatah party, decided to challenge Sheikh by filing an official complaint. Suddenly, the senior Palestinian official’s political future seemed to be hanging in the balance.
That scandal alarmed Sheikh’s allies in Israel’s security establishment. Avi Issacharoff, a Palestinian affairs reporter, recalled receiving an unusual appeal from a senior Israeli officer to kill the publication of his stories on the issue at the time so as to protect Sheikh’s reputation. Issacharoff published the stories anyway.
During his interview with Foreign Policy, Sheikh declined to respond to the allegations in detail, declaring he wouldn’t waste time on “insignificant talk.” Seemingly aware he would face questions about the accusations, he said at the beginning of the meeting that he wouldn’t answer questions he “doesn’t like.” And before we departed his office, he said in Hebrew that he had a proposal: “Forget about that stuff. It’s negative propaganda against me.” Sheikh declined to answer specific follow-up questions about the incident. In an email, his chief of staff called all of Foreign Policy’s questions “void” and said Sheikh “doesn’t have the time to respond to such void claims.”
In public, the Israeli government and the PA spar constantly over politics. But officials on both sides maintain what one diplomat called a “Catholic marriage” to stave off the collapse of the status quo, which both prefer for the time being.
But as the Palestinian public’s frustration mounted in the spring of 2022 amid deadly clashes between militants and Israeli security forces, Abbas privately threatened to freeze “security coordination,” an unpopular policy that sees Palestinian and Israeli authorities share intelligence to crack down on Palestinian militants. If implemented, the threat could have led to snowballing violence.
U.S. and Israeli officials turned to Sheikh to persuade the president to back down. Sheikh’s close ties with Abbas, combined with his willingness to compromise, have long made him the go-to person for diplomats. “When things are getting really tense,” he is the point of contact for calming the situation, said a U.S. official, who called him an Abbas “whisperer.”
Sheikh held quiet talks with top State Department official Barbara Leaf, who informed him that Israel had pledged to halt home demolitions until Biden’s visit last July, according to the senior Biden administration official. Sheikh leveraged the proposal to talk Abbas out of going through with the move.
His Israeli counterparts also stay in constant contact, calling him a reliable partner on improving Palestinian cellular networks, which require Israeli approval; carrying Israeli leaders’ messages to Abbas; and more. Samer Sinijlawi, a Fatah activist, said Israeli officials were ringing Sheikh incessantly during a trip through the Jordanian desert a decade and a half ago. “The amount of calls between him and the Israeli military liaison was not normal,” he said. “Best friends don’t talk to each other like that.”
“He gives you the impression: ‘I hold the keys. If I close a deal with you on an electrical substation in Jenin or something related to security coordination, count on it happening,’” said Michael Milshtein, a retired Israeli intelligence officer who met with Sheikh.
But for many Palestinians, Sheikh plays on terms that Israel prefers—incremental concessions that improve daily life but don’t bring the Palestinians closer to independence. “He’s pragmatic, but he lacks pragmatism that achieves results,” Sinijlawi said.
In late 2022, Sheikh agreed to a move that would leave many Palestinians reeling—paying rent to Israel for West Bank land Palestinians consider occupied. The idea was to establish a Palestinian customs facility in the West Bank town of Tarqumiya, which would grant the Palestinians a modicum of greater sovereignty, by leasing the land from Israel. “I was flabbergasted—we are talking about occupied land through and through,” said an official in Sheikh’s office who requested anonymity to avoid retribution. “I thought if this deal materializes, it would set an extremely dangerous precedent.”
(Sheikh said he consented to leasing the tracts under a 99-year agreement, calling that part of the proposal “unproblematic.” But he said the deal fell through because Israel refused to allow tobacco and alcohol, whose imports bring considerable revenues into the PA’s coffers, to be processed at the center.)
Palestinians who criticize the decisions of senior officials like Sheikh have faced threats and intimidation. In November 2020, Sheikh announced that the government was officially resuming coordination with Israel, including the widely loathed strategy of working with Israel to clamp down on militants. Aseel Suleiman, a radio host on Raya FM—a Ramallah-based station—delivered a monologue against Sheikh, who had just taken to the airwaves to call the decision to resume coordinating with Israel “a great victory for our Palestinian people.” “May God make this evening hell for he who sold out, betrayed and coordinated, and then declared that to be a victory,” Suleiman said, her voice choked with rage. “What gullibility is this?”
In response, Sheikh called the station’s owner and furiously demanded that he “fix the situation,” a Palestinian official familiar with the incident said. He also insisted the news outlet post an article backing the restored ties, the official said. The outlet complied and published an editorial defending the decision. Sheikh denies knowledge of the incident.
Sheikh’s American admirers understand that he has a domestic image problem. Last October, U.S. officials invited Sheikh—rather than the Palestinian prime minister—to visit Washington to meet with U.S. officials, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. “He wanted to come, obviously, to bolster his own credibility inside the PA, and our desire was to let him come and give him some street cred,” the administration official said.
As long as U.S. policy aims to maintain the hope of a two-state solution in the face of years of deadlock, Washington will need people like Sheikh. “He’s trying to keep this whole crumbling tower standing,” the administration official said. “He understands our limits and the Israelis’ limits.”
But it’s fair to wonder how well he still understands Palestinian limits. Whoever assumes the reins of power from the octogenarian president, one certainty is they will lead a deeply problematic PA. Former senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi said the next president will inherit a situation in which Israel “continues to kill people, demolish homes, expand settlements, and annex land” while dealing with the legacy of a government that has used its limited power “to oppress and commit injustices against its own people.”
Mahzouz Shalaldeh, a 39-year-old teacher from a hillside village near Hebron in the southern West Bank, said his 10th grade students’ hopes for a better future recede yearly, feeling squeezed between “the hammer of the occupation and the anvil of the Authority.” “The occupation is suffocating us, and the Authority is practicing every type of corruption there is,” he said. “The gates of hope have been slammed shut for us.”
Sheikh concedes that many Palestinians no longer believe that his government will liberate them from Israel’s occupation. It’s less clear whether he believes that should lead him to change course. “The people lost hope, of course,” he added. “But me, as an official and leader, I can’t.”
Adam Rasgon is a member of the editorial staff of the New Yorker. He has covered Israeli and Palestinian affairs as a correspondent for several publications, including the New York Times.
Aaron Boxerman is a reporter for the New York Times in London. He previously reported from Jerusalem, covering Israeli and Palestinian affairs for the Wall Street Journal and the Times of Israel.
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