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Mission Impossible: The PA’s new government under Shtayyeh

Mohammad Shtayyeh [Youtube]
Palestinian PM Mohammad Shtayyeh [Youtube]

I don’t know why Dr. Mohammad Shtayyeh put himself in this awkward position by agreeing to form the new Palestinian Authority (PA) government. Shtayyeh is one of the brightest, most efficient and experienced leaders in the Fatah movement, which dominates the PA. He holds a PhD in Development Studies and boasts an impressive career as the former Minister of Public Works and Housing and chairperson of the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction (PECDAR).

He endorses an open-minded political discourse and doesn’t stir tension with Fatah’s dissidents, unlike others in the Fatah leadership. What should have been a priority for someone like him was to participate in a government that fosters Palestinian unity, consolidates consensus and implements the 2014 reconciliation agreement with Fatah’s rival Hamas. He should not, however, seek to be head of a government that fosters division and tries to impose the agenda of one Palestinian faction on all others.

Even before it was formed, the Shtayyeh government became a crisis government, an impasse government and a “recipe for failure”. The circumstances surrounding the formation of this government gave it shaky foundations, thus it was denied any chance of success from the start.

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In the designation letter, PA President Abbas asked Shtayyeh to restore national unity and bring “Gaza back to the bosom of national legitimacy”. He also asked him to take all necessary measures to hold parliamentary elections in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) as soon as possible, to “consolidate democracy and political pluralism”.

Shtayyeh, for his part, mentioned in his acceptance speech that he takes on the role of prime minister in the name of Fatah, addressing Abbas not just as head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the State of Palestine but as head of the Fatah movement. Without referring formally to Abbas as the PA president, Shtayyeh stressed the need to work with partners in the PLO to implement “one legitimacy and one law”.

Crisis government

Mandating Shtayyeh to form a government came in the midst of a severe crisis in the Palestinian project, as well as the deterioration of the PLO and its institutions. It came during the PA’s transformation from being a project which aims to establish an independent, sovereign Palestinian state along 1967 borders, to being an authority that serves only Israeli objectives. His mandate also came at a time when former Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s government has failed to perform its duties, which were supposed to be based on “national consensus”.

The course of the former government reflected Abbas’ policies and Fatah’s tendencies; it sought to subdue Hamas and implement reconciliation selectively. It also continued to make decisions that not only infuriated Hamas and the Islamic Jihad Movement, but also the main factions of the PLO such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). Unlike most Palestinian factions, the former government insisted on continuing its security coordination with Israel and its sanctions on the besieged Gaza Strip. As a result, these forces boycotted the last session of the Palestinian Central Council (PCC).

The Fatah leadership also escalated the crisis when the Constitutional Court in Ramallah dissolved the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), a move which was rejected by most Palestinian factions. Prominent constitutional law scholars denounced the court’s decision as unconstitutional, while most factions refused to comply with the decision and participate in elections.

Thus, forming the Shtayyeh government came amidst a political crisis in which Fatah itself risks further isolation. Was it therefore suitable to continue its aggravating policies, by excluding Hamas and trying to form a government that lacks the support of the main PLO factions? How could this government “restore national unity,” as promised by the designation letter, unless it thinks that Hamas would submit to its dictates?

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The main PLO factions had refused to participate in the upcoming government even before Shtayyeh was mandated to form it, since it fosters division and complicates the crisis. Furthermore, when the designation letter was sent it deepened concerns over reconciliation, for it neither referred to the national reconciliation document nor to the 2014 reconciliation agreement. In addition, Shtayyeh’s acceptance speech was uttered in the name of Fatah to determine that only PLO members will be part of the government.

An impasse government:

Any new government is supposed to put holding democratic elections on top of its to-do list. It should be a consensus government that enjoys the widest national participation, to provide a healthy political environment and a fair, trustworthy electoral environment. However, to form a factional government led by Fatah was a step backward and a blow to hopes for any credible elections. Thus, such a government will mirror the Palestinian impasse, rather than providing an exit from it. It will bring about the failure of the Palestinian political system, which, for more than fifty years, Fatah has insisted on leading.

Several questions need to be asked. How will the Shtayyeh government achieve national unity if the national and Islamic factions will not participate in it? How will Palestinian democratic elections that reflect political pluralism be held, if most of the Palestinian factions will boycott it? Can Shtayyeh’s government hold elections without the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip? How can the Palestinian forces feel assured that free and fair elections will be held, as long as the occupied West Bank is administered by continuing security coordination with Israel?

If the basis on which Shtayyeh was chosen to be prime minister means that the sanctions against Hamas and the Gaza Strip will continue, then the elements fuelling the internal Palestinian crisis will remain. Shtayyeh’s government will find itself the key tool in the confrontation, hence it can be said that it “ensured its failure” in achieving national unity or political pluralism before it even began.

Recipe for failure

In the midst of the challenges currently facing the Palestinians – among which are the so-called “deal of the century,” Israel’s normalisation drive with Gulf states and Israel’s arrogance – the factions need to overcome their differences. Instead, Abbas has formed a one-colour government that faces these great dangers using tools that anger the Palestinian public and foster Palestinian schisms, creating a “recipe for failure”.

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The government in the West Bank city of Ramallah doesn’t have the luxury of ignoring those forces on the ground who are demanding national consensus, stopping security coordination with Israel and that sanctions on the Gaza Strip be lifted.

Thus, the Shtayyeh government will be weak when facing Israel’s illegal settlement project, which will keep pressuring the PA to protect Israel’s security and stability. This government will also be more exposed when facing US efforts to implement the “deal of the century,” which has pushed for normalisation, handed Jerusalem and now the Golan Heights to Israel, and effectively closed the Palestinian dossier.

Shtayyeh, the economy expert, will also face a difficult economic task in light of the enormous imbalances that exist in favour of Israel. These include: the conditions created by the 1994 Paris Protocol; the spread of corruption in PA institutions; the fact that 80 per cent of PA income depends on revenues collected by Israel and external support; the fact that 58 per cent of PA imports and 83 per cent of exports are to and from Israel; and Israel’s “piracy” of Palestinian tax funds.

If there should be one word of advice to Dr. Shtayyeh, it should be that your expertise, skills and capabilities to understand these opposing views must make you a bridge for national forces to reach true reconciliation. However, and since the conditions of your mandate will lead to more crises and failures, for which you will be held responsible, it would be beter to excuse yourself from carrying out such an important task.

This article was originally published in Arabic on Arabi 21 on 15 March.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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