OpinionIsrael at War

Abbas’s musical chairs

Replacing one Mohammed with another.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is greeted in Ramallah by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh, on his way to meet with P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas, on May 25, 2021. Photo by Flash90.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is greeted in Ramallah by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh, on his way to meet with P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas, on May 25, 2021. Photo by Flash90.
Khaled Abu Toameh
Khaled Abu Toameh is an award winning Arab and Palestinian Affairs journalist formerly with The Jerusalem Post. He is Senior Distinguished Fellow at the Gatestone Institute and a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

On Feb. 26, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh announced his resignation, paving the way for the formation of a new Palestinian government. The resignation came in response to pressure from the U.S. administration on the Palestinian leadership to “revitalize” the P.A. so that it can assume control over the Gaza Strip after Hamas is removed from power.

Shtayyeh, who was appointed by P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas in 2019, is a veteran member of the P.A.’s ruling Fatah faction. The government he headed consisted of ministers affiliated with a number of political factions, as well as others known as independent technocrats.

Abbas is reportedly considering replacing the outgoing prime minister with Mohammed Mustafa, a senior PLO official who previously served as P.A. deputy prime minister and minister of economy. Mustafa, in addition, also served for many years as economic advisor to the P.A. president.

Both Shtayyeh and Mustafa have long been closely associated with the P.A. president. They have both held senior jobs in various P.A. political and economic institutions, as well as in Fatah and the PLO.

As far as most Palestinians are concerned, there is no real difference between the two Mohammeds: Shtayyeh and Mustafa. They both belong to the same P.A. leadership that has been governing the Palestinians since the signing of the Oslo Accords more than three decades ago.

By replacing one loyalist with another, Abbas is again playing musical chairs in an effort to appease the U.S. administration and persuade it that he is serious about revamping the P.A.

The assumption that a new Palestinian government headed by Mustafa (or any other figure selected by Abbas) would be different than the one headed by Shtayyeh is dead wrong. The cabinet shake-up is an insignificant cosmetic change.

The Palestinians do not need cosmetic changes in governance. Instead, they need new leaders who care about the interests of the people in addition to their own interests. Such potential leaders do exist, but they have no role to play because Abbas and his cronies in the West Bank have long been blocking the emergence of such leaders, whom they see as a threat to their authority. The same applies to the Iran-backed Hamas terror group, which has for many years cracked down on political activists, journalists and human rights advocates in the Gaza Strip.

Palestinians need a serious and comprehensive plan for political, economic and administrative reform in all the institutions of the P.A. At the end of January, to that end, the Shtayyeh government unveiled a new plan for “judicial, administrative, security and financial reforms.” Just a month later, he and his entire cabinet submitted their resignations to Abbas. This means that the plan is unlikely to materialize.

If the Shtayyeh government was already working on a plan to revamp the P.A. (as the U.S. administration is demanding), why is he being asked to step down in favor of another Abbas loyalist? Is the new government headed by Mustafa going to come up with a different plan for reforming the P.A.? This just shows that Abbas’s real objective is to play the Americans for fools by creating the impression that the new prime minister will be different from his predecessor.

Crucially, Palestinians need to get rid of all the incompetent and corrupt leaders and officials—whether from Fatah or Hamas—who have failed to bring them democracy, freedom of speech, the rule of law, good governance, or a decent economy.

As long as Abbas is the one who has the power to appoint and fire the prime minister and set the cabinet’s policy, it is unrealistic to expect real change when a new government is formed. If appointed, Mustafa, like his predecessors, will be a puppet in the hands of his master, Abbas.

The last three cabinets that served under Abbas were also described as “technocratic” and independent. One was headed by Salam Fayyad, a former World Bank official and minister of finance.

Fayyad was not affiliated with any Palestinian political faction. He headed an electoral list called Third Way, which won only two seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council election in 2006. Fayyad’s “problem” was that he had never spent a day in an Israeli prison and had not carried out an attack against Israel. In the world of the Palestinians, it is more important to graduate from an Israeli prison than from the University of Texas in Austin.

Fayyad may have been a reformer, but that is not how one gains popularity among Palestinians. Instead, Palestinians prefer someone who was part of the Palestinian “resistance” against Israel. That is why senior Fatah operative Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences in Israeli prison for his role in a number of deadly armed attacks against Israelis two decades ago, is the Palestinians’ favorite candidate to succeed Abbas, according to Palestinian public opinion polls.

The two prime ministers who came after Fayyad—Rami Hamdallah and Shtayyeh—were also selected by the P.A. president. Hamdallah and Shtayyeh were known to be even more loyal to Abbas than Fayyad, who moved to the United States a few years ago after reportedly falling out with the P.A. president. Despite their loyalty, Hamdallah and Shtayyeh were eventually forced by Abbas to step down.

No P.A. prime minister can make comprehensive changes in the political and economic structure of the P.A. without the backing of Abbas and his inner circle. For now, it is clear that neither Abbas nor the handful of officials in his close circle is interested in bringing about substantial changes to the P.A. That is because they are comfortable with the status quo, whereby they are the sole rulers and decision-makers, while the prime minister and the government are stooges in their hands.

The 88-year-old Abbas, who is in the 19th year of a four-year term in office, has proven that he cares more about his own survival than good governance. He will get rid of any prime minister or senior official who dares to challenge him or speak out against his autocratic rule. That is why he turned against Fayyad a decade ago and drove him away—not only from the position of prime minister, but into exile abroad. That is also why Abbas was quick to expel senior and veteran Fatah officials Mohammed Dahlan and Nasser al-Qidwa for criticizing him and the Palestinian leadership in public.

Abbas may be publicly stating that he is ready and wants to return to the Gaza Strip, from where he and his P.A. were expelled by Hamas in 2007. Those who believe that Abbas really wants to go back to the Gaza Strip are under an illusion. Abbas had many chances to return to the Gaza Strip over the past 15 years, but preferred to stay in the comfort of his home and office in Ramallah, the de facto capital of the Palestinians in the West Bank. No one prevented Abbas from heading to the Gaza Strip.

Abbas is well aware that it is safer for him to live under Israeli security control than under the rule of Hamas, whose members killed dozens of his supporters during the 2007 Hamas coup against the Palestinian Authority.

Besides, Abbas knows that assuming control of the Gaza Strip in the post-war era would mean taking upon himself the almost impossible task of rebuilding the Gaza Strip and preventing Hamas and other terror groups from reasserting power.

So, to appease the U.S. administration, Abbas is once again playing musical chairs. Abbas wants the Americans to believe he is serious about revitalizing the P.A. and rebuilding the Gaza Strip. Abbas is hoping that his latest musical chair ploy will incentivize the international community to continue pouring millions of dollars into the coffers of the P.A. leadership.

Originally published by The Gatestone Institute.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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