New Boss

New Palestinian PM Faces Old Challenges

Is the new Palestinian prime minister up to the task of keeping the Palestinian Authority up and running? Ali Gharib on the new appointment.

Rami Hamdallah has three weeks to form a coalition to rule over Palestine's limited self-government. The British-educated linguistics professor arrived at this position when Mahmood Abbas, the Palestinian Authority's president, appointed him Sunday as prime minister. The move leaves the weight of the world—or at least of the Palestinian Authority—on Hamdallah's shoulders. He inherits a PA bereft of popular legitimacy, or really any kind of democratic credentials at all (Abbas himself has overstayed his mandate by years). And he will need to show impossible efficiency in the PA—battling the corruption, much of it built into the patronage system—in order to keep aid flowing and the PA barely above water. He'll paradoxically need to prove his ability to do so not to the people whom he is supposed to represent, but to the American and European donors. And he's got to do it all while contending with the same foil that plagued his predecessor, Salam Fayyad, who was beloved by the West but not enough make significant progress toward lifting the chief obstacle to Palestinian economic growth: the Israeli occupation.

Like Fayyad, Hamdallah is reportedly well-respected in the West, insofar as European capitals and Washington are familiar with him and his record. Hamdallah will assume Fayyad's position of a technocrat in chief, as Abbas spends his time meeting with foreign leaders and appearing before international fora. But the latter's positions will deeply impact the former's work. Two momentous decisions await the Palestinian Authority in the weeks and months ahead. The first is whether or not to resume peace talks with the Israelis, at the behest of American Secretary of State John Kerry. For the moment, Abbas appears to be holding firm to his "pre-condition" for negotiations: that Israel freeze settlements. But non-cooperation with the U.S. initiative may hold intertwined diplomatic and fiscal risks for the PA. The second decision the PA must make could be even more perilous: whether or not to continue a reconciliation process with, Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip. Designated as terrorists by much of the West, a national unity government could freeze the very aid that Hamdallah's job is to shore up.

Hamas, for its part, has already called Hamdallah's appointment "illegal," complaining that it runs counter the latest agreement between it and Fatah—Abbas's party—for national unity. But a Palestinian news agency said that Abbas remained committed to the reconciliation deal. That alone will cause wariness in Israel and Western capitals. Where Hamdallah sits is not exactly clear: though he's a self-proclaimed independent, Haaretz's Barak Ravid reported, "[M]any Fatah leaders consider him 'one of their own,' unlike Fayyad, who was despised and continually subjected to attempts of sabotage." That's the one thing, Ravid comments, that seems to be going in Hamdallah's favor: Abbas's good will.

A new report last week from the International Crisis Group noted that, though things were holding together for now, the conditions for instability on the West Bank—up to an including the collapse of the Palestinian Authority—remain rife. But, so far, the newly-named prime minister is off to an auspicious start: the PA was slated to pay its staffers' salaries for at least today and tomorrow, something its struggled to do amid its deep fiscal crisis. Like paying salaries, the other thankless tasks that constitute being the Palestinian Authority prime minister will likely be conducted day to day, and with not entirely clear prospects for successes.