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Palestinian prime minister’s quick exit exposes flawed framework

Observers see forces opposed to elections Hamas could win

by Felice Friedson and Diana Atallah, The Media Line

June 24, 2013 | 10:14 am

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah in the West Bank city of Ramallah on June 19. Photo by Mohamad Torokman/Reuters

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah in the West Bank city of Ramallah on June 19. Photo by Mohamad Torokman/Reuters

This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah remarked when he was sworn-in to succeed Salam Fayyad at the helm of the Palestinian government earlier this month that his government’s life will by necessity be short-lived. It was intended to last until August, at which time it would be dissolved in order to pave the way for a long-awaited national consensus government comprised of both Fatah and Hamas loyalists. Doubtless, not even Hamdallah expected his tenure to last merely 18-days.

 Following intense back-and-forth between the recently-appointed prime minister and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamdallah on Sunday became the second “caretaker prime minister” in a month, when his resignation – submitted on Thursday – was accepted by Abbas.  Meanwhile, a power struggle is playing out in the Palestinian Authority.

At the heart of the political machinations according to sources inside the PA is the appointment by Abbas of two deputies to the prime minister: Muhammed Mustafa, Director of the Palestinian Investment Fund (PIF) and the other name bandied about as a leading candidate to replace Fayyad before Hamdallah was selected; and Ziad Abu Amr, a former foreign minister. While the pair of deputies was presumably a  bid by Abbas to assert more control than he had when Fayyad held the post, the absence of clear lines of authority, responsibility and procedure created an atmosphere described by on senior official as “conflicts and confusion.”

“There was a problem in forming the government from the beginning,” Hani Al-Masri, head of the Ramallah-based think tank Masarat told The Media Line. “Assigning two close aides to [President] Abbas [to serve] as the Prime Minister’s deputies is against the law.”

According to the Palestinian constitution, each member of the cabinet has to have a portfolio or a specific topic in which to be in charge. In addition, the constitution affords the Prime Minister the right to appoint a deputy of his own choosing. “This time, Abbas assigned the deputies himself and he didn’t assign them any department to oversee, which is in violation of the law,” explained Al-Masri.

“The classic power struggle between the president and the prime minister came between the prime minister and his [president-appointed] deputies,” according to writer and political analyst Jihad Harb. He told The Media Line that, “The presidency is trying to concentrate all executive powers and keep them in the hands of the Palestinian Authority practically, but not legally.”

Palestinian media was rife with reports of the alleged dispute between Hamdallah and his deputies that lead him to resignation. A journalist who spoke to The Media Line on condition that he remain anonymous explained that President Abbas gave Mohammed Mustafa, whom he appointed as the economic deputy to the Prime Minister, verbal approval to sign agreements with the World Bank without first referring them to the prime minister.

Muhammed Abu Khdeir, a senior journalist with Al-Quds, a leading Palestinian newspaper, opined that Hamdallah quit because he was “like a picture with no power.” He described Hamdallah as being “upset,” and not wanting to speak to anyone. Abu Khdeir said Hamdallah left Ramallah for Nablus, where he has been serving as the president of An-Najah University.

Masri blames the problem on the absence of a parliament and a viable system of accountability. “Anyone in the position of the Prime Minister will do the same thing. All Prime Ministers need authority and powers to function. Hamdallah is an academic with minimal experience, so it took him some time to understand the problem,” Masri told The Media Line.

The position of prime minister was created by Yassir Arafat only a decade after the Palestinian Authority itself was established as the result of pressure to institute a series of reforms in 2003.

That year, Abbas found himself in the same position Fayyad and Hamdallah now find themselves in when after only four months of leading the government under Arafat’s rule he resigned as the result of a power struggle with Arafat, primarily over control of the security forces.

In 2007, Abbas gave Fayyad the security and finance portfolios, but divisions between the two men intensified as Abbas tried to strip authority from the prime minister. “Abbas felt that Fayyad had political ambitions. Also, Fayyad refused to deliver a letter Abbas wrote to [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu,” Harb told The Media Line.  

Al-Quds journalist Abu Khdeir told The Media Line that Abbas is under pressure from Fatah because they want to lead the government. During the last five years, Prime Minister Fayyad replaced Fatah members with people on the political left like Foreign Minister Riyad Malki his chief aide Jamal Zakout. Senior Fatah members feel that Fayyad worked against both Fatah and Hamas.

A consensus of three possible scenarios has emerged among observers in the Palestinian Authority, first among them that Abbas himself will lead a unity government that will prepare for national elections. But this is not seen as a priority for either Fatah or Hamas. Such a government failed to take shape despite being agreed upon in the 2012 Doha agreement.

The second scenario sees Abbas appointing PIF head Mohammed Mustafa, a close aide to Abbas, and the candidate the president failed to appoint the first time around. Sources inside the Palestinian Authority speaking off the record told The Media Line that the primary reason Mustafa was passed over is because the United States Administration didn’t welcome his candidacy, fearing the Fatah-Hamas split might actually be ended.

Political analyst Harb agreed, telling The Media Line that, “I believe the Americans rejected Mustafa’s name as well as all other candidates because they didn’t want the reconciliation to be achieved.”

The third option is that Abbas will push for a Fatah-majority government led by a senior Fatah member. “There has to be cohesion and harmony between the president and the prime minister. A Fatah member will be less confrontational with President Abbas,” according to  Harb.

Abu Khdeir of Al-Quds sees a fourth possibility in Dr. Mohammad Shtayyeh, a seasoned official who heads the Palestinian Economic Council for Development & Reconstruction (PECDAR). Abu Khdeir’s option recalls the importance Western nations placed in Salam Fayyad’s impeccable bona fides within the international financial community.  Abu Khdeir suggests that while Shtayyeh could possibly take the prime minister’s portfolio, but if not, Abbas could opt to retain it for himself if it is not determined to be illegal for him to do so.

The final scenario suggests that Abbas, too, does not want elections because Fatah is weak and either Hamas, as they did in 2006; or Islamist Salafis, could walk away with the electoral victory.

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