The last Palestinian legislative elections were in 2006, when Hamas, the Islamist political organization, scored a victory over Fatah, the Palestinian nationalist faction. Hamas took control of Gaza in an event that most Fatah loyalists still consider “that bloody coup.” Since then, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas has ruled in a state of emergency that Hamas has declared invalid, even as negotiations between Hamas and Fatah continue on and off, with little authentic enthusiasm among the leadership on either side for a truce that would reunite Gaza with the West Bank under one administration.
Under the leadership of Salam Fayyad, first appointed prime minister by Abbas in 2007, a new vision for a future Palestine (known as “Fayyadism”) began to emerge, based on state-building and creating political institutions. But Fayyad finally became fed up with the internal trench warfare that Fatah’s old guard—frustrated by Fayyad’s efforts to modernize, democratize, and bring financial transparency to the PA—conducted against his administration.
Palestinians still don’t have a state, but as of this week they do have a new prime minister: Dr. Rami Hamdallah, appointed by Abbas on June 2 and sworn in today. Politically, Hamdallah is known as a moderate, but that is almost beside the point. He is a caretaker prime minister who will face the same problems Fayyad did, but with an extra handicap: Fayyad, once a high official of the World Bank, had international recognition and some political seasoning (he had run in a party independent of Fatah for the Palestinian legislature), while Hamdallah is a lifelong academic.
Still, he has led An-Najah National University in Nablus with great success—today it is the largest Palestinian university, with over 20,000 students, a law school, and a school of medicine. Its reputation for academic excellence has grown significantly, and the new prime minister has received kudos from opinion leaders in Israel familiar with his record of scholarship and moderation. Hamdallah, a linguist by training and considered close to the Fatah party (he has been Secretary General of Palestinian Central Elections Commission since 2002 and was the commission’s deputy chairman in 2011), won’t have to contend with the jealousy that Abbas felt toward Fayyad, whose independence and political ambitions were a threat to the president and to the old guard hangers-on around Mazen.
Will Hamdallah be able to make a difference? He faces an economic crisis, for which this doctorate of linguistics will have to learn political skills immediately. A new report by the International Labor Organization lays out the problems with precision:
The Palestinian economy is grappling with stagnating growth, higher unemployment and poverty and food dependency. The number of unemployed Palestinians rose by 15.3 per cent between 2011 and 2012, with the unemployment rate reaching 23 per cent. The situation is particularly acute in Gaza, where unemployment has reached 31 per cent and is almost 50 per cent amongst women.
18.4 per cent of young Palestinians were neither in the labour force nor in education, including 31.4 per cent of young women….Restrictions on movement, employment and economic activity should be relaxed in a transparent and permanent manner in order to increase opportunities for decent employment in conditions of equality…In addition, work in [Jewish] settlements remains largely unregulated and is open to abuse.
International loan guarantees are either slow to materialize or not forthcoming. To add to the problem, an economic package of $4 billion offered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to the Palestinian Authority a few weeks ago has so far been refused by Abbas, who feels that economic aide is being offered in lieu of a political settlement. (This is not the professed aim of Kerry, who wants to secure the nation building efforts that Fayyad began.)
Additionally, Hamdallah stated that he would serve only until August, after which he expects there to be elections for a unity government between Fatah and Hamas. This is a gigantic “if,” considering the lack of progress in negotiations so far, but it is enough to weaken Hamdallah’s government even before it takes office.
The biggest decision doesn’t lie before Hamdallah but Abbas, who must decide whether or not to join with Kerry’s efforts and sit with Israel once again or to go it alone by appealing unilaterally to the UN and other international institutions—which will further erode the economy of the West Bank and perhaps further strengthen Hamas’s rule in Gaza. Additionally, Abbas has placed two of his most loyal allies in the new regime as deputies to Hamdallah.
Both Palestinians and Israelis have been obstructing current U.S. efforts, just as they have bucked the Arab Initiative put forward by the Arab League. But while the peace process has languished, the Palestinians on the West Bank have quietly been building a private sector economy and maintaining and growing their institutions of higher learning. The potential for a Palestinian state living in peace—and prosperity—beside Israel is exemplified in the new prime minister’s bio. Whether he can make a difference depends less on him and more on his president and on the Israeli government.
Still, there are rays of hope in this appointment that must not go unnoticed. Abbas has chosen for his government’s leader a man of peace, a man whose life exemplifies higher learning and the liberal values that come with the university milieu. The institution he has led was built methodically over the last several decades and represents a desire among Palestinians for education and economic modernization. Even as the hardliners inside Israel’s current government continue to proclaim that there is no partner for peace, the fact is that this is the second time that the Palestinian Authority has had a government whose leadership is explicitly against terrorism and overtly tempered by academia and democratic yearnings—unprecedented in the Arab world today. This is no small feat—and one that could yield major rewards for the entire region—but, sadly, it may continue to be a missed opportunity for resolution between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Jo-Ann Mort is a member of Dissent’s editorial board. She is often in Israel and the Palestinian Authority areas and writes about issues there.