As Fayyad resigns, Palestinian politics face the unknown

Abbas yet to decide whether to appoint a new technocrat as PM or head an interim government himself

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad (left) with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2012 (Issam Rimawi/Flash90/ File)
Former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad (left) with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2012 (Issam Rimawi/Flash90/ File)

The resignation on Saturday of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has thrown the Palestinian political arena into a state of disarray, as speculations abound regarding the identity of his successor.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas was undecided on Sunday as to whether he would himself head the new interim government — as stipulated by a reconciliation agreement signed with Hamas in Qatar early last year — or appoint a technocrat as prime minister, local media reported.

The PA constitution allows Abbas two weeks to appoint a new prime minister, and Palestinian daily Al-Quds reported on Sunday that Abbas will begin consultations with political factions on Monday, following a two-day trip to Kuwait.

Abbas’s Fatah party, which was widely regarded as the main political force pushing for Fayyad’s resignation, refused to comment on the move Sunday.

“This matter concerns the president and we have issued no comment,” Fatah spokesman Ahmad Assaf told The Times of Israel.

But Palestinian political scientist Sameeh Hammoudah of Bir Zeit University near Ramallah said there was no love lost between the president’s faction and the resigning independent prime minister.

“The resignation will strengthen Abbas’s position within Fatah,” Hammoudah said. “His position in the party will rise while his popularity on the street will remain the same, seeing as Fayyad did not realize the expectations vested in him politically and economically.”

Despite his prestige among leaders in the West, Fayyad was unable to slow the quick downward spiral of the Palestinian economy. A report issued by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in March found that the Palestinian economy in Gaza and the West Bank “was in a far more precarious situation” than six months earlier, with unemployment reaching a quarter of the labor force by the end of 2012.

Some in the Palestinian political arena regarded Fayyad’s resignation as an opportunity to push forward stalled reconciliation talks with Hamas.

Bassam Salihi, head of the small Palestinian Communist party, issued a statement on Sunday calling on Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who controls the Gaza Strip, to immediately resign as well and allow for parliamentary and presidential elections at the earliest possible date.

Khalil Assaf, who heads a consortium of independent Palestinian figures, hoped that such an eventuality would come to pass.

“What we need now is a national unity government. This is imperative for our economy, security and society,” Assaf said. “The existence of two parallel governments is unusual, dangerous and simply bad.”

Presidential and parliamentary elections could take place within three to six months, Assaf opined, given that the Central Elections Committee has finalized its updates of the voter registry.

A number of names were floated Sunday by Palestinian media as possible successors to Fayyad. Mohammad Mustafa, head of the state-owned Palestine Investment Fund and a former World Bank official, was mentioned by the Al-Quds daily, as was Mohammad Al-Hamdallah, a professor at Nablus’s A-Najjah University. But “knowledgeable sources” told PA official daily Al-Ayyam that Abbas had no shortlist to speak of.

Meanwhile, an editorial in Palestinian news agency Ma’an praised Abbas for standing up to American pressure to reject Fayyad’s resignation.

“[Abbas] proved that he is among the few Arab leaders who dare to say the word ‘no’ to the insolent American administration, which blatantly intervened in our internal affairs,” read the article.

But Ido Zelkovitz, an expert in Palestinian politics at Haifa University, said that Abbas’s motive in accepting Fayyad’s resignation may have been somewhat less than principled.

“The fact that Abu-Mazen [Abbas] accepted Fayyad’s resignation proves that he wanted to get rid of him,” Zelkovitz said. “Like everyone else, Fayyad realized that Abbas has no natural heir within Fatah, at least not outside prison. He aspired to replace Abbas in the Palestinian leadership.”

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