Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas this week asked Dr. Rami Hamadallah, the president of al-Najah University, to replace Salam Fayyad as prime minster and form the new government. With this decision, Abbas has put an end to the speculations over the nature of the next government and set the stage for a technocrat cabinet to lead in the executive branch of the Palestinian Authority.
When I met Hamadallah some years ago, he seemed a very successful academic and able administrator, working at al-Najah National University in Nablus, one of the most important in the West Bank. For the past 14 years he has served as president of the university – a role in which he excelled.
Educated in the United Kingdom, Hamadallah comes from the West Bank town of Enebtah, near Tulkarem. Politically independent, he has no official affiliation to Fatah, Hamas, or indeed any other Palestinian political entity. Having served both as a member of the Palestinian Constitution Committee and as Secretary General of the Palestinian Central Election Committee, he is widely respected as a credible and capable technocrat. Traditionally, Palestinian figures serving in such sensitive positions – central elections committee – are known for their independence, capabilities, and good reputation. Hamadallah is no exception.
The reasons for Abbas’s choice
The reasons for Abbas’s choice must be examined on both the domestic and international levels. Domestically, Hamadallah will appeal as someone untainted by corruption and nepotism, characteristics which are essential to build trust with the local community and master Palestinian politics. The fact that he comes from a family known for its historic involvement in the Palestinian national movement will also help; Wahid Hamadallah, for instance, was a prominent leader of the movement in the1970s and 80s.
Members of the international community will also find little fault with an official who has consistently shown himself to be a successful technocrat. Certainly, his corruption free reputation will assure potential donors that their assistance will be in good hands. In appointing someone of that nature, though, Abbas intended to send a clear message. By selecting a relatively unknown independent he sought to consolidate his power on the international level, making clear that there is only one political address in the Palestinian leadership. In contrast with his predecessor Fayyad – a favorite of Palestinians’ international partners in the West – Hamadallah will be seen as someone capable of running the PA, but not as a competitor for political influence.
The new prime minister, then, seems a sound choice for the role but will face significant challenges moving forward. While Hamas will likely not regard Hamadallah with the same hostility as they did his predecessor, the Islamist group continues to hold similar reservations over Abbas’s decision making process and approach of “unilateralism”. Hamas has emphatically rejected Abbas’s move, arguing that it contravenes the agreement reached in principle between Fatah and Hamas on the formation of a national unity government.
Beyond relations with Hamas, Hamadallah faces unenviable tasks in managing his own patch. The powerful Union of Public Sector Employees welcomed the new premier, but has already presented him with a set of demands, including the replacement of certain ministers and the reversal of decisions made by Fayyad, for instance on tax and fuel price hikes.
The international stage
It is on the international stage of relations with Israel, though, that Hamadallah will face his most serious challenge, and the one that will determine his success or failure. With a new man in the job, Palestinians will expect change in the prospects for statehood. Faced with a Netanyahu government that has never been a partner for peace, however, there is little sign that such change will be feasible. Aggressive Israeli policies of settlement expansions and confiscation of Palestinian lands are by themselves sufficient to undermine the credibility and efficiency of any prime minister technocrat be it Hamadallah or anyone else. The United States, for its part, appears unlikely to bring it about. Washington offered significant economic support to Salam Fayyad, but failed to push for change in the crippling circumstances of Israeli occupation. This has contributed significantly to Fayyad’s failure turning him from a leader of a national project to a CEO of a Palestinian Authority enterprise. With Secretary of State John Kerry now presenting a renewed but familiar economic initiative, Hamadallah will likely be feeling downbeat about the possibility of a genuine U.S. effort to curb Israeli policies that deliberately undermine the prospects for peace. With his domestic and international acceptance, Hamaddalah’s appointment presents a new opportunity to advance peace efforts in the region but for Israel and the U.S. to continue to treat him like his predecessor, Hamadallah will turn to be just another missed opportunity for peace and justice in this region.