Our Man in Ramallah? Reply

The new Palestinian Prime Minister inherits a litany of challenges; toeing the line between the US and Ramallah is just one of them.

By Grant Rumley

Late on Sunday evening last week, as the last hours of Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad’s premiership were winding down, President Mahmoud Abbas appointed Rami Hamdallah, a lifelong academic, as his successor. For many, the move was viewed as a shift back across the political spectrum. Where Fayyad was a political independent, a reformer, and at times an opponent of Abbas—Hamdallah is a trusted associate of the Palestinian president, an outsider with little to no political experience or power base, almost guaranteed to follow the president’s agenda.

That Abbas and Fayyad had their differences is well documented. In the wake of his announcement of stepping down, various Fatah officials were quick to re-write the history of his political descent. One senior Fatah member told me the differences between the two men were minute, that Fayyad had simply grown tired in his post, and that the story of animosity between the two was the darling of a media-base looking for a soap opera. However the history changes regarding his time in office, it is clear that Fayyad had strong reservations regarding the strategic course of the leadership. Fayyad was a political independent, an existential threat in the second-highest post in a government dominated by Fatah. His efforts at institution building and transparency were hailed as part of the national agenda in retrospect, but when the rubber hit the road for the Palestinians at the UN, Fayyad’s reservations about Western aid—and in particular at US and Israeli threats to withhold aid and tax revenue as reprisals—became more and more exasperated. And while in public he supported the efforts of Abbas and the leadership, behind the scenes the Palestinian practice of dithering in tactics—from negotiations, to internationalization, to reconciliation—proved to be too hard an act to balance.

It falls upon Rami Hamdallah, then, a lifelong academic and president of An-Najah University, to ascend to what has to be considered the most thankless job in Palestine. Hamdallah will inherit a crippling economic crisis, a fledgling civil work force, and a government just trying to find a way to pay its employees’ salaries. He can expect his work to be cut out for him. Abbas has shown little proclivity for the day-to-day operations of the Palestinian Authority, instead choosing to focus on big-picture diplomacy and international lobbying. And while the initial rhetoric has revolved around forming a unity government in the next three months, Hamdallah’s primary responsibility will be to forge the necessary relationships with international donors in order to keep aid money flowing into the government.

This relationship starts with the US. No country is more important to securing a sustainable source of aid revenue. Fayyad was educated at Texas, preached transparency and good governance, and was always available to allay US and Western concerns regarding the distribution of aid. Hamdallah will have to make up that critical gap and gain the US’s trust. Whereas Fayyad had spent time as an economist at the World Bank prior to his premiership, Hamdallah was until recently head of the Central Elections Committee, charged with laying the foundations for transparent national elections in the West Bank and Gaza. Given the lack of both transparency and elections, this is hardly a confidence-inspiring experience for the US. How this trust is built, what type of relationships Hamdallah is able to foster with both the US and international donors, what kind of assurances for the aid distribution he’ll be able to provide—all will be a major factor in determining the type of government he’ll be able to lead. His relationship with Abbas will be the other major factor.

For Abbas, the appointment of Hamdallah will be the manifestation of a consolidation of power that stretches back years. Whereas Fayyad and Abbas had core disagreements over basic governance, Hamdallah is trusted by Abbas, and this trust will place in him lock step with Abbas’ strategic aims for the government. With no independent power base and no political affiliation, Hamdallah is not a threat to either Abbas or Fatah. In a Ma’an article, a senior Fatah official called Hamdallah “a national patriot” who gives them the “opportunity to form a unity government with Hamas.” Already Abbas has appeared to put the training wheels on—with recent reports indicating both Muhammad Mustafa and Ziad Abu Amr, longtime allies of Abbas, serving as deputy prime ministers.

Hamdallah follows an internationally respected economist and political independent in Fayyad, who despite his best efforts somehow never seemed to be able to toe the line between rapport with the West and internal Palestinian harmony. Perhaps it’s a line not meant to be toed for Palestinian prime ministers. The next couple of months will reveal what the Palestinian Authority looks like when the prime minister is on the other side of the line.

Grant Rumley is the Editor in Chief of the Jerusalem Review of Near East Affairs.

Photo credit: Flickr commons

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