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Why the Next Palestinian Prime Minister Doesn’t Matter

Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah (C) stands during a swearing-in ceremony of the new government in the West Bank city of Ramallah June 6, 2013

The resignation of newly appointed Palestinian Authority (PA) prime minister, Dr. Rami Hamdallah, came as a surprise to even the most dedicated Middle East watchers. Hamdallah, who had scarcely been on the job for two weeks, was appointed on June 4 to replace Salam Fayyad, who resigned last April following a protracted power struggle with PA president Mahmoud Abbas and members of his Fatah faction. But if Fayyad’s resignation was seen as a blow to the much-vaunted “institution-building” project, Hamdallah’s decision to throw in the towel after less than three weeks on the job ought to raise an even broader set of concerns.

Whatever governance complications may result from the absence of a prime minister and the postponement of needed reforms, in reality the Palestinian leadership suffers from a much deeper crisis of legitimacy. With no functioning parliament, an ongoing and debilitating split between the Fatah-dominated West Bank and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, and rulers who cannot claim either electoral or consensual legitimacy, Hamdallah’s resignation is just the latest layer of paralysis to be added to Palestine’s dysfunctional and stagnant politics.

Thus, while there is much speculation about who might replace Dr. Hamdallah it may not actually matter. Whomever Mr. Abbas chooses will have very limited powers and even less legitimacy. Like his predecessor, Fayyad, and despite the many constraints imposed on the job by both the PA presidency and an all-consuming Israeli occupation, Hamdallah was unwilling to be the kind of ‘rubber stamp’ prime minister that Abbas was apparently looking for. Moreover, given the quickness with which Hamdallah gave up the post as well as the relentless campaigned waged against his predecessor by Abbas’s Fatah faction’s, few qualified candidates are likely to even want the job.

Even if Abbas were able to find such a pliant personality who was willing to do his bidding, he must balance this against other considerations as well, namely the U.S. and Hamas. Since Washington and other western capitals together underwrite most of the PA’s budget, the next prime minister would also have to have the confidence of international donors. At the same time, naming someone strongly opposed by Hamas could jeopardize prospects for reconciliation; even if reconciliation is not likely now, for reasons of domestic as well as regional politics Abbas cannot afford to close that door completely. This is a very tall order indeed. As a result, whoever is ultimately named to the post is unlikely to last very long.

This is true for political as well as practical reasons. Despite the increasingly precarious position of the Palestinian Authority, there is still little appreciation for Palestinian legitimacy, how it is derived or the implications of its decline. Most western officials and analysts tend to view Palestinian politics through the narrow lens of governance, while ignoring the impact repeated failures in the peace process and overall lack of representativeness have on the PA’s legitimacy of Palestinian leaders and institutions.

Although most in Washington have yet to internalize this, for Palestinians the success or failure of their leaders and institutions hinges not on the identity of the PA’s next “technocrat-in-chief” but on their ability to deliver on Palestinian national aspirations for freedom and self-determination. Moreover, the absence of a cohesive and credible Palestinian leadership is a problem not just for the Palestinian national movement but for the entire two-state project and the prospect of Israeli-Palestinian peace as well.

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