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Mission impossible in the West Bank

The battle of wills between Fatah's elite and the former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, Salam Fayyad, has finally ended with the appointment of his successor, Dr Rami Hamdullah. Both the US and EU welcomed the move half-heartedly. They had, since mid-April, exerted huge pressure on President Mahmoud Abbas to retain the unelected Fayyad, who was acclaimed as their "man in Palestine"; David Welch, a former US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs once referred to Dr Fayyad's administration as "the best Palestinian authority government in history".

In principle, there is nothing wrong with having the confidence of foreign donors. However, when that confidence descends into everyday political interference it could be detrimental. In the case of Fayyad, he appeared to have too much Western political backing. That eventually brought about his downfall. Not being a Fatah member, many within the movement interpreted his growing influence and assertiveness as a challenge to Mahmoud Abbas's position and power.

On the face of it, being close to the Fatah elite and President Abbas may have some short term benefits. Ultimately though, what will define Dr Hamdullah's administration is how well he manages the Palestinian economy. In this regard, he does not have much time to play with.

In order to avoid the public sector unrest and strikes which plagued the final days of Fayyad's administration Hamdullah will have to stem the rising tide of inflation in the West Bank, create jobs and ensure that civil servants are paid in full and on time. Achieving this will, to a large extent, depend on how successful he tackles the PA's budget deficit, now standing at $1.4 billion, the worst since the authority was established in 1994. On top of that, there is a $1.2 billion debt owed by Ramallah to local banks.

Of course no appointment of this magnitude could take place in the occupied territories without the explicit approval of the Israelis. That is to say, a fulsome undertaking must have been given to maintain the level of security collaboration with the Israeli occupation for which Fayyad had gained a reputation. Accordingly, Hamdullah, like his predecessor, is expected to ensure that the West Bank remains calm and that there will be no third intifada. After all, the late President Yasser Arafat hastened his own demise when he threw his political weight behind the Aqsa Intifada. In the current situation, however, where the crops of poor farmers are destroyed routinely by illegal Jewish settlers it will be virtually impossible to control public anger from escalating out of control. Stand by for even more stringent security sweeps of dissenters and officially-sanctioned brutality by PA security agencies on the streets of the occupied territory.

Outside of Fatah's ranks, reaction to the appointment of the new prime minister was lukewarm. Several Palestinian factions, large and small, questioned its legitimacy and acceptability. They include the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and the Palestinian Democratic Union (FIDA).

Apart from the mountain of economic and political challenges, the new prime minister also inherits an unpalatable menu of constitutional problems. For a start, while the Palestinian Legislature is supposed to approve his government, this is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future because the parliament itself has not met since 2007. Indeed, the legal term of office of the man who has appointed him, President Mahmoud Abbas himself, ended in 2009. Hamdullah's legitimacy has to be questioned.

According to an agreement signed between Fatah and Hamas in Cairo last month both parties should form a new government of national unity within a period not exceeding three weeks. That was, though, dependent on an agreed date for general elections which, regrettably, has not been set. In the circumstances, everything suggests that Hamdullah's caretaker administration will be in office for quite some time.

Given the enormity of the tasks, Palestinians in the West Bank would be deluded to have high hopes. Since most of the ministers from the Fayyad administration will remain in office, the outlook is more of the same rather than change.

After being hand-picked by Mahmoud Abbas and endorsed by Fatah, Dr Hamdullah is expected to remain faithful to the policies oft-described by the PLO as its "international obligations" and agreements with Israel. Any deviation will result in the forfeiture of US and EU financial support. Even if the new prime minister chooses to change the style of doing business with the Israelis he must, at the end of the day, maintain the same levels of security, economic and political collaboration with them. His hands are tied.

By any standards, this is a tall order; a genuine mission impossible. Never in history has an administration succeeded in wedding the needs and aspirations of an occupied people with those of their occupier. However well-intentioned and resourced he may be, Dr Hamdullah is not going to be the first.

Commentary & AnalysisIsraelMiddle EastPalestine
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