Argument

Palestine’s Nothing Man

Palestine’s Nothing Man

"President [Mahmoud] Abbas has asked me to form a new government and I have accepted," said Rami Hamdallah, the president of Al-Najah University in the West Bank city of Nablus, on Sunday.

In many ways, the announcement was a surprise. After all, Hamdallah is a relatively obscure academic with absolutely no hands-on experience in governing. He was never viewed a frontrunner in the Palestinian prime minister derby — a horserace that began with the April 13 resignation of reformist premier Salam Fayyad. If anything, Abbas was expected to tap his economic advisor and close ally Mohammed Musafa. And if he didn’t make that move, some expected the Palestinian president to name himself. 

In the end, Abbas probably realized that tapping Mustafa or himself might cause some uneasiness in Washington. Mustafa’s appointment would have looked like an extension of power for Abbas, who is currently four years past the end of his legal presidential term, with no elections plans in the making. And if Abbas had named himself prime minister, the move would have looked like a naked power grab.

But if the appointment of Hamdallah is not an extension of Abbas’s presidential power, it is undoubtedly a consolidation. Whereas Fayyad was an independent figure, Hamdallah is a Fatah loyalist, described to me by one former Palestinian advisor as simply a "nice guy who will not make waves." In other words, unlike Fayyad, whose bitter disputes with Abbas over fundamental governance issues led to his departure, Hamdallah should not be expected to lock horns with the president.  

Hamdallah has never run a government — or even a government ministry. A look at his biography reveals that he has held a number of academic positions and that he has penned academic journal articles with titles like, "A contrastive analysis of selected English and Arabic prepositions with pedagogical implications" for Papers and Studies in Contrastive Linguistics.

To be fair, Hamdallah is the president of al-Najah University, the largest university in the West Bank, with 20,000 students. He is also the secretary-general of the Palestinian Central Elections Committee and the chairman of the Palestinian Securities Exchange (PEX). But none of that qualifies him to take the reins of an interim government that has been running on financial fumes in recent years and has been in political crisis since at least 2007, when Hamas overran the Gaza Strip, splitting the Palestinians into two mini-states.

The new premier undoubtedly has some smarts — he holds a PhD from the University of Lancaster in Britain. But it’s hard to explain how he is an improvement over Fayyad, an accomplished economist with practical hands-on experience, and a leader who inspired confidence among the international donor community as a tireless champion of institution building and transparency.

The truth is, Abbas wants a weak premier. And he may make another move to weaken Hamdallah further. A former Palestinian official tells me that Ramallah is abuzz with rumors that Mustafa may be appointed deputy prime minister. Should this occur, Hamdallah could effectively be taking orders from his number two. 

The real bad news here, then, is not the appointment of a benign academic with no political power base or any realistic chance of advancing in the Palestinian political system. Rather, it is the weakening of the institution of prime minister.

Ironically, it was Abbas who served as the first Palestinian prime minister. The position was essentially created in 2003 by the West to dilute the ironclad and centralized power of the presidency, then held by Yasir Arafat. With the peace process in a state of gridlock and allegations of corruption mounting, one New York Times editorial declared that the appointment of a new prime minister was "the most important reason there is renewed hope for progress in the Middle East." In the ensuing power struggle, however, it didn’t take long for Arafat to force Abbas’s resignation. But when Abbas became president in January 2005, his early behavior suggested that he wished to maintain a political balance his predecessor had eschewed. 

Eight years later, however, Abbas has become the quintessential Middle East strongman. From the restriction of press freedoms to the quashing of political rivals, Abbas looks increasingly like a jacket-and-tie version of Arafat.

Sure, West Bankers sporadically voice their displeasure with the political status quo, notably on Facebook and other social media outlets. But between widespread skepticism over U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s new peace initiative, the failure of a six decades-old struggle to gain independence from the Israelis, and the inability to iron out a reconciliation agreement with Hamas, the ossified Palestinian political system is just one challenge among many. 

As one local journalist tells me, rather than debating the qualifications of their new prime minister, many Palestinians appear indifferent, adding that one Ramallah resident quipped, "the big question is who will be Al-Najah’s [next] president."