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Replacement rumors for Abbas as Prime Minister denied by ‘candidate’ Mustafa

Two economic stalwarts suggested for prime minister’s role have similarities to Fayyad

by Felice Friedson, The Media Line

February 21, 2012 | 11:13 am

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Jan. 29. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Jan. 29. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

Rumors circulating inside the Palestinian Authority regarding possible replacements for Prime Minister Salam Fayyad are being discredited by at least one of those being named. Sources have been reporting that Munib Al-Masri and Dr. Mohammad Mustafa are under consideration to replace Fayyad instead of PA President Mahmoud Abbas taking on the additional role that some Hamas members are arguing would be illegal to do. Both rumored candidates are renowned leaders in Palestinian financial circles and would arguably placate Western governments that have looked to the US-educated, former World Bank official Fayyad to provide a level of comfort relative to the handling of large aid contributions from donor states.

But while a source close to Abbas told The Media Line that serious consideration of Al-Masri and Mustafa is underway, Mustafa himself denied there is room for anyone but Abbas. “Hamas and Fatah agreed in signing the Doha agreement that Abbas would take on the role of prime minister in addition to the presidency,” Mustafa said. “The parties have agreed that President Abbas will be the leader of the government. So no more candidates. The president is the person nominated to do the job. He has to be the president. There is no way for anyone else to do so under terms of the agreement.”

Mustafa said the focus now is not on selecting an alternative to Abbas as prime minister but on completing the process and getting the elections set as soon as possible.

The conflicting versions of events-to-be both exude reasonableness. With governments including the United States not comfortable about funding a unity government that includes Hamas, which is listed on the US State Department’s terror list, there is heightened sensitivity about caving in to Hamas’ demand that Fayyad be removed from the roster of ministers in the pending interim cabinet that is supposed to govern until elections can be held. One theory is that replacing Fayyad with men whose bona fides in Palestinian commerce are established will go far in preventing the replacement from being an issue. Underscoring that point, Al-Masri and Mustafa each have points of confluence with Prime Minister Fayyad in their educational and professional resumes.

A well-placed source speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to speak on the record told The Media Line that above all, “the requisite is being someone who can handle money and is a technocrat.” Al-Masri and Mustafa both fill the bill. Al-Masri, an octogenarian who created much of the Palestinian financial infrastructure including its stock exchange, leading holding company and largest telecommunications company, was twice asked by Yassir Arafat to be his replacement as president, a role he reportedly turned down a total of three times.

Al-Masri remains active and as a measure of the respect afforded to him, played a key role in early reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas. And like Fayyad, his American alma mater is the University of Texas at Austin.

Dr. Mustafa serves as Chairman and CEO of the Palestine Investment Fund (PIF) and is President Abbas’ economic adviser.  Like Fayyad, he spent more than a decade at the World Bank following his education in the United States. Mustafa’s Master’s degree and Ph.D. were awarded by George Washington University.

Asked about Israeli objections to the unity government, Mustafa told The Media Line that “the Israelis need to negotiate with their counterpart. And their counterpart as negotiators for the Palestinians is the PLO.” When asked whether he believes Congress will cut off aid, Mustafa replied that “some voices in Congress” are making that threat, but he doesn’t expect that line of thought to carry the day.

Sources inside the Palestinian Authority are characterizing the initiation of the interim body as “imminent.” Eyes are on Cairo where on Wednesday Abbas joins the Reconciliation Committee as it seeks to tidy up remaining details and perhaps establish a firm timetable for events. If that happens, Abbas’ appearance at an Arab League event in Doha on Thursday will take on the air of a victory lap by a man who insisted all he seeks is retirement.

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