Jun 16 2013

New Palestinian Prime Minister Faces Old Problems

Published by at 1:17 pm under Articles,Palestinian politics



By Daoud Kuttab

Ever since the creation of the first Palestinian government headed by Mahmoud Abbas, there has been tension between the presidency and the prime minister’s office. At the time of that first government, there was pressure on Palestinians to shift as much power as possible away from former President Yasser Arafat and to the government of Prime Minister Abbas.

After Arafat’s death, the tables were turned when Abbas became president. Attempts were made to shift some of the powers back to the president, especially after the victory of pro-Hamas members of Parliament in 2006 and the appointment of Ismail Haniyeh as prime minister.

Former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad reversed the trend one more time, insisting on enjoying the full authority given to him by Palestinian law. The conflict between Abbas and Fayyad reached its pinnacle when Fayyad refused Abbas’s call to allow resigned Finance Minister Nabil Kassis to return. Eventually, Abbas won the tug-of-war with the resignation of Fayyad. A photo during a ceremony in which Abbas honored Fayyad for his 13 years of service with the medal of honor shows both leaders emotionless, a clear reflection of how bad the relationship had become.

It was in this atmosphere, the perceived victory of the president’s office, that newly designated Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah stepped onstage. Choosing members of his government was his first challenge. Not only did the president’s office insist on the continuation of the major portfolios like the Foreign and Interior Ministries, but it seemed that the president’s staff had ideas for almost every portfolio, leaving the inexperienced Hamdallah to appear as nothing more than an instrument in the hands of the experienced Abbas team.

Nowhere was the interference of Abbas’ people more prominent than in the choice of one minister who was apparently changed at the last minute by the president’s office. Hamdallah’s original choice for this post was a well respected doctor from Hebron. The nominated person was consulted and told by Hamdallah to be ready to come to the swearing-in ceremony, but at the very last minute he was disinvited, leaving many to believe that the change was made by Abbas. The jilting of the minister hit the airwaves in Hebron, prompting the local leaders to meet at the city hall to protest that of all the ministers, not a single cabinet officeholder came from Palestine’s largest and most populated southern district.

The anger of Hebronites eventually resulted in the appointment of Anwar Abu Eisheh as minister of culture, an act that did little to dampen the anger of the city’s residents, who demanded six cabinet portfolios.

Hamdallah’s challenges naturally go far beyond the birthplace of his Cabinet members. The biggest challenge facing the new prime minister, in addition to paying the salaries of public employees, is to help speed up the reconciliation process. As one commentator noted, the success of this government will depend on how short its life will be. Social-media activists have been calling the Hamdallah government the “tawjihi government,” noting that its main responsibility will be supervising the tawjihi exam, the national aptitude test given to 12th graders.

For his part, Hamdallah has yet to submit his resignation from his position as president of An-Najah University, a decision that reflects the temporary nature of his administration as it awaits the fulfillment of promises to move the reconciliation process ahead. A welcome message from Hamdallah to visitors to the university is still prominently displayed on the university’s website.

The No. 1 promise in the reconciliation process is presidential and legislative elections in the West bank and Gaza, leading to an elected legislature that can then give a vote of confidence to a newly elected government. But for the time being, the government is chosen by the president, its members are “suggested” by the president and the Cabinet swears in in front of the president.

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