x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Abbas's choice of new Palestinian PM will change little

Low profile and lack of political track record make Rami Al Hamdallah a less than ideal prime minister to tackle the Palestinian economy, or the challenge of reconciling Hamas and Fattah.

Rami Al Hamdallah has some big shoes to fill as he replaces Salam Fayyad in the post of Palestinian prime minister.

As president of Nablus-based Al Najah University, Mr Al Hamdallah is known as a micro-manager, a bureaucrat who is kept fully aware of who does what and when at the largest higher education institution in the West Bank. While his résumé is worthy of praise - he has a doctorate in linguistics from the University of Lancaster in the UK - it also raises a question: why was an academic chosen for a position that has inherited an economy mired in billions of dollars of debt and a political quagmire?

When Mr Fayyad resigned, in April, Mr Al Hamdallah was a potential candidate but all eyes were on Mohammed Mustafa, the CEO of the Palestine Investment Fund and a former International Monetary Fund (IMF) official. His economic credentials would have easily appealed to Western funders.

But Mr Mustafa's appointment would have been seen as an extension of Mr Fayyad's - the two have very similar backgrounds - and tainted with accusations that he was chosen to appeal to US and European donors, which is precisely what led to Mr Fayyad's downfall. (Mr Mustafa has since been named deputy PM.)

Mr Al Hamdallah's low profile and lack of a political track record seem to be what attracted Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to the scholar. It is not unheard off for scholars to take high positions in Palestine: former government spokesperson Ghassan Khatib and former finance minister Nabil Qassis are also in this category.

But most often these academics-cum-politicians enjoy heavyweight status because of their political activity, for their role in various negotiations, or because they were once jailed for political activity.

But Mr Al Hamdallah has never been a minister or lawmaker; the closest he ever got were stints as secretary-general of the Central Elections Commission and chairman of the Palestinian Stock Exchange. Neither sets him up as the ideal candidate to tackle an economy marred by dwindling international aid, or for the challenge of reconciling two feuding factions.

Nor do they give him the clout to deal with Israel's determination to torpedo any agreement, while Israeli settlements unfurl across the hills of the West Bank, carving it into isolated cantons.

It is perhaps for these very reasons that Mr Al Hamdallah was chosen to be a figurehead maintaining the status quo following Mr Fayyad's departure until a unity government is announced with the blessing of Fatah and Hamas.

Choosing a political and economic unknown would ensure that no disagreements would arise between Mr Al Hamdallah and Mr Abbas - leaving the Palestinian Authority (PA) president to run the show virtually unchallenged.

Mr Al Hamdallah is not officially tied to any faction, but is loyal to Fatah and maintains close relations with the PA. Hamas objected to the appointment, saying it was not in line with the agreement on forming a national unity government, but Mr Al Hamdallah's appointment will not be met with the same ire that met his predecessor.

Mr Fayyad was criticised for maintaining a weak political base with very little public support. When his new "Third Way" party ran in the 2006 parliamentary elections, it received three per cent of the popular vote. But Mr Al Hamdallah has an even smaller power base, which suggests that Mr Abbas is no longer interested in having a premier who could challenge his control.

In addition to being the PA president, Mr Abbas is also head of Fatah, the ruling party in the West Bank, and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the umbrella organisation housing most parties and factions.

The appointment of two deputy prime ministers, Mr Mustafa from the West Bank and Ziyad Abu Amr from Gaza, was strategic: Mr Abu Amr has experience in all matters related to the coastal enclave (notably the prospects of reconciliation with Hamas) while Mr Mustafa will administer the substantial renewed aid portfolio recently bestowed upon the PA by the US.

The position of prime minister was never vital until Mr Abbas himself filled it in 2003 after western powers backing the PA demanded that it be created. Many believe the West wanted to dilute Yasser Arafat's centralisation of power. Now Mr Abbas is being accused of maintaining a similarly tight grip on Palestinian politics.Under Mr Abbas, opposition has been suppressed. Some critics of his policies and those who question his legitimacy, via journalism or social media, have found themselves jailed or interrogated.

Last Thursday Mr Al Hamdallah's cabinet picks were unveiled in a swearing-in ceremony broadcast live on the PA-run satellite TV station. This revealed only a minor reshuffle of Mr Fayyad's last cabinet, with most of the 24 ministerial posts filled by the usual suspects, repositioned as if in a game of musical chairs.

Most of Mr Abbas's picks from continuing and previous governments, such as the foreign minister, Riyad Al Malki, and the religious affairs minister, Mahmoud Al Habash, are staying on until a unity government is formed with Hamas; Mr Al Hamdallah says this is due on August 14.

But if the past is any guide, then a reconciliation agreement with the Gaza-based Islamist movement may not be inked this summer as planned. In the meantime, a ruling government filled with all the president's men, headed by a figurehead and working under Israel's military grip, further raises doubts that tangible changes will be made on he ground.

 

Dalia Hatuqa is a journalist and writer based in the West Bank

On Twitter: @DaliaHatuqa