Feb 20 2014

Abbas considers sacking Palestinian prime minister

Published by at 11:09 am under Articles,Palestinian politics


By Daoud Kuttab

Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s days in office are numbered, according to reliable sources in the Muqata (headquarters). The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, told Al-Monitor that for a convergence of reasons they expect Hamdallah to be replaced by President Mahmoud Abbas within a month.

The addition of prime minister to Abbas’ set of titles — president of Palestine and chairman of the PLO — would be in accordance with the Doha Agreement reached with the Islamist movement Hamas in February 2012 and a prelude to possible presidential and parliamentary elections.

While the change of prime minister will most certainly be in compliance with the reconciliation agreement, other problems are brewing within the Palestinian leadership that may contribute to Hamdallah’s early departure.

A major dispute between the prime minister and Minister of Waqf (Religious Endowments) Mahmoud al-Habbash has received media attention. Habbash, who has extremely close ties to Abbas, angered Hamdallah regarding the status of income that is collected on behalf of the Islamic waqf. Habbash refused to turn over monies collected for rent of waqf properties, citing religious reasons.

For his part, Hamdallah, who resigned in his first days in office and later withdrew his resignation, has made it clear that he will not accept such rebellion by one of his ministers. Multiple media reports stated that the dispute has reached such a tense level that Abbas will have to choose between his prime minister and one of his most trusted confidants.

A third problem has also rocked the presidential headquarters and will most certainly have a direct effect on the staying power of the prime minister. A report in the Bethlehem-based Palestine News Network stated on Jan. 27 that Abbas drafted a presidential decree that ordered the early retirement of presidential office director Hussein al-Araj. The news item was later withdrawn and removed from the network’s server, and replaced by a denial from the Palestinian presidency.

Insiders told Al-Monitor that Abbas is angry with both Araj and his own chief of staff, Tayeb Abdel Rahim, for their role in trying to reduce the sentence of one of their colleagues who was sentenced to six years in jail by a Palestinian military court for attacking a private home and shooting at its residents. Abdel Rahim, who hails from the same governorate as the prime minister, Tulkarm, has been the main defender of Hamdallah in the president’s office. When Hamdallah resigned after two weeks into his appointment, it was Abdel Rahim who succeeded in convincing Hamdallah to change his mind. From then, the relationship between the two only grew stronger.

Abdel Rahim is also a member of the powerful Fatah Central Committee and is said to have strong ties with a number of Arab countries including Egypt and Jordan. Abdel Rahim’s ties within Fatah and in nearby Arab countries means that it will be difficult for Abbas to let him go. Abbas and his supporters within the ruling Fatah movementhope that Abdel Rahim’s membership in the Central Committee might end this summer when Fatah holds its seventh congress and elections for its 100-member Revolutionary Council and 20-member Central Committee.

Hamdallah’s fate, however, is not necessarily connected only to that of Abdel Rahim and Fatah. His role in ensuring Arab and international funding has been key to his appointment because of his record as a clean and transparent former university president. The need to keep Hamdallah, however, has been reduced lately after his government produced and approved the Palestinian government’s 2014 budget. Passing the budget lessens the liability of firing Hamdallah and ensures that any new prime minister will have some financial leeway to operate from.

The pressure on Abbas to choose between Hamdallah and his close confidant Habbash, as well as the scandal around Abdel Rahim, might be a bad combination for the survival of Palestine’s current government.

The easier choice for Abbas would be to side with Habbash and weaken his powerful chief of staff simply by ending Hamdallah’s premiership.

According to the 2012 Doha Agreement, Abbas is to temporarily hold the position of prime minister for both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as part of the reconciliation process, and prepare for parliamentary and presidential elections. This would provide Abbas with the political cover he needs without exposing any of his internal conflicts.

It is unlikely that Hamdallah’s exit would have much effect on either the peace process or the reconciliation efforts with Hamas. Unlike his predecessor, Salam Fayyad, Hamdallah is not charismatic and has not demonstrated the persuasiveness needed to sway international donors. The reconciliation portfolio will not be affected as this issue is being handled by the president’s office and within the efforts of the ruling Fatah movement. Hamdallah is neither a member of the Fatah leadership nor does he have much say as to what happens in the president’s office. Of course, the position of the international community will depend more on who replaces Hamdallah rather than on his possible departure.

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