Analysis'A superficial change, not a significant one'

‘Cosmetic’ PA reshuffle seen as bid by Abbas to hold power, avoid demanded reforms

Ramallah’s new prime minister is likely to be another loyalist to the PA president, who appears to be trying to preempt US pressure for structural changes to revitalize the body

Gianluca Pacchiani

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, chairs a session of the weekly cabinet meeting with Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Monday, April 29, 2019 (Majdi Mohammed / AP)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, chairs a session of the weekly cabinet meeting with Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Monday, April 29, 2019 (Majdi Mohammed / AP)

The resignation of the Palestinian Authority’s government on Monday — formally accepted by PA President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday — was meant to mark a major step toward the revitalization of the administrative body, a move demanded by the US and the international community if it is to have a role ruling post-war Gaza.

But some Palestinians are less than optimistic that the plan to replace PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh and others with a group of technocrats will be enough to salvage the ailing authority.

“It’s mostly a superficial change, not a significant one,” said veteran Ramallah-based journalist Mohammed Daraghmeh, a correspondent for the Saudi-owned Asharq TV news channel.

“This move was expected. Abbas was under international and local pressure to have a new government to get ready for the ‘day after’, so he had his cabinet resign to appease the international community,” Daraghmeh said.

Shtayyeh is to remain as a caretaker prime minister until a new technocratic government is formed, likely under the leadership of Mohammad Mustafa, the current head of the government’s investment fund and a former deputy prime minister and economy minister.

But as before, the overall authority will still reside with Abbas.

Seeking more radical reforms within the PA, Washington has reportedly been pushing for a genuine transfer of power from the president to the prime minister, while letting Abbas retain a ceremonial role. The octogenarian leader, in office since 2005, however, seems to have turned a deaf ear to calls to loosen his grip.

Palestinian Authority government meeting in Ramallah, on February 26, 2024. (Wafa)

“The change is purely cosmetic, but Abbas is not able to understand that nobody will buy his cosmetics,” quipped Samer Sinijlawi, a Palestinian political activist from East Jerusalem and head of the Jerusalem Development Fund, which specializes in Palestinian humanitarian affairs.

Outside Ramallah’s halls of power, some influential Palestinian political figures have been seeking to formulate a vision for a reformed PA, chief among them Mohammad Dahlan. The former PA security head in Gaza, ousted from the Strip by Hamas in 2007 and exiled by Abbas to the UAE in 2011, has repeatedly called for fresh leadership.

The PA’s move to announce a new government was ostensibly designed to neuter calls by Abbas’s critics for him to empower an independent government, with a mission and a timetable for carrying it out.

Abbas is in a bubble that represents only a fraction of the Palestinian people

“Abbas preempted everyone and asked his prime minister to resign and his political and economic advisor [Mohammed Mustafa] to form the new government,” Daraghmeh said. “Expectations from the new government are therefore low, simply because there is no national unity, and no change in priorities.”

Sinijlawi noted that Abbas had not consulted with any rival political factions about appointing Mustafa. “Even if he convinces everybody in his entourage in Ramallah that this is the right choice, this does not mean that he has achieved consensus. He’s in a bubble that represents only a fraction of the Palestinian people.”

Both analysts said a return to PA rule in Gaza would require the buy-in of rival Hamas, which still has considerable clout in the coastal enclave.

Supporters of the Palestinian group Hamas gather during a protest in Gaza City, on June 19, 2023. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

“Despite the dismantlement of its military capabilities by the IDF, Hamas is still the main political power in control of Gaza. Nobody can hold the keys to Gaza as long as Hamas is there,” Sinijlawi said.

The prospect of Hamas — the Gaza-ruling terror group that invaded Israel on October 7, slaughtering 1,200 people, manly civilians massacred amid brutal atrocities, and abducting 253 more — maintaining any semblance of power in Gaza is unacceptable to Israel and has been firmly rejected by the US. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly rejected the prospect of a return of the PA to Gaza once the war is over, favoring an administration in the hands of local officials and Israel maintaining security control.

Washington has pushed for a reformed PA to eventually rule the coastal enclave, but it has ruled out Hamas playing any role in government in the future.

Nonetheless, Abbas’s Fatah faction has continued to pursue conciliation with Hamas, though nearly two decades of attempts have failed to bridge gaps between the groups, who plan to meet for fresh unity talks this week.

“Even if Hamas politburo members do not sit in a future Palestinian government, their acceptance from behind the scenes will be necessary because they control the civil administration,” Sinijlawi explained.

The activist cited the example of the 2006 Palestinian elections, in which Hamas won a majority of the seats and which the PA tried to overturn. “It didn’t work. Very soon, Hamas was back in control of Gaza,” he noted.

A new page

The PA may thus need to lean on a strongman if it hopes to take power in Gaza.

That could be where Dahlan comes in. A Gaza native, he has reportedly been meeting with representatives of Palestinian factions, including Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, in preparation for the day after the war. But he remains bitter enemies with the PA leader.

“No Abbas, no Hamas,” the former Fatah strongman said in a recent interview with The New York Times.

Another name Sinijlawi cited as a possible PA bridgehead into Gaza is Nasser al-Kidwa, a Gazan native and nephew of the late Yasser Arafat. Al-Kidwa served in the past as PA foreign minister, but was ejected from Fatah after trying to form a slate to challenge Abbas in Palestinian legislative polls in May 2021. The ballot was canceled shortly before the scheduled date.

Nasser al-Kidwa, right, former minister for foreign affairs of the Palestinian Authority, in Gaza City on September 24, 2022. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Al-Kidwa, who currently lives in the US, has emerged as a prominent opposition figure within the Palestinian establishment, and has called Mahmoud Abbas a “totalitarian.”

In an interview he gave to France24 in December 2023, he said that the Palestinian people have a right “to see new faces,” but if the current leadership refuses to step down willingly, things could get “ugly.”

By merely shuffling the cabinet, Abbas has signaled that he is unprepared to cede any power to rivals or the strongmen. It’s a strategy that analysts do not see taking him very far.

“Abbas will not be able to convince either the West Bank street, or the Gaza street. And I think he will not be able to convince the international community either,” said Sinijlawi.

“Abbas doesn’t have to exit the Palestinian political life,” he added. “He can stay as an honorary president. He and his family can have immunity. He can keep everything he has in his hands, his assets and money. But he needs to transfer his powers to a government that is respected by the Palestinian people. For 19 years, we have been hostages of Abbas. Let us start a new page in our history.”

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