Mohammad Shtayyeh is finishing his first year as Palestinian Prime Minister, but he faces several challenges, most notably the coronavirus pandemic in the occupied West Bank, which is taking a dangerous turn after the daily increase in cases of infection. He is also facing the Palestinian Authority’s financial crisis following the fall of domestic revenue and foreign aid, as well as Israel’s refusal to hand over tax revenue collected on the PA’s behalf.
Nevertheless, Shtayyeh remains popular according to opinion polls, ahead of PA President Mahmoud Abbas, which may turn his eyes towards running for the presidency. While he has the support of key figures on the Fatah central committee — he is also a member — others fear his political ambitions.
His government has seen extensive changes since April last year, with 16 new ministers. It includes people from all Palestinian governorates, including the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley.
The Covid-19 crisis coincides with a crisis in Palestine-Israel relations in a political vacuum. Octogenarian Abbas has been in and out of hospital for check-ups on his health issues. If Shtayyeh succeeds in steering the Palestinian economy through the pandemic his influence will grow, boosting his chances of running for president.
This aspiration reveals the conflicts within the Palestinian leadership preparing for Abbas’s succession. Only one politician is using the pandemic as a way to the leadership: Shtayyeh. He is capable of bypassing political differences and has an effective public persona, which helps his standing in the polls and media while Abbas is in coronavirus self-isolation. Presidential duties are being carried out by telephone only, with no face to face contacts.
Perhaps that is what makes Abbas express doubts about Shtayyeh, who he appointed as Prime Minister. He is now a clear challenger for Abbas’s position who has to be kept in check. Hence, when the Prime Minister dismissed the governor of Tulkarm in the West Bank, Abu Mazen overrode Shtayyeh’s decision.
Nevertheless, at 62, Shtayyeh is more than 20 years younger than Abbas, and holds a daily press conference to blow his own trumpet about the government’s accomplishments, while Abu Mazen delivers speeches from home. The Palestine-based Arab World for Research and Development (AWRAD) said that 82 per cent of the Palestinians are satisfied with Shtayyeh’s performance during the virus crisis. According to the latest opinion poll by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre (JMCC), 96 per cent of Palestinians in the West Bank have confidence in Shtayyeh’s handling of the pandemic. Abu Mazen can only dream of such approval ratings.
Shtayyeh has moved through the leadership ranks since Yasser Arafat’s days as President. He is a professional economist with experience in important positions and rounds of negotiations with Israel, and has always been trusted by those above him. However, he lacks a power base within Fatah, in either the political or the armed wing.
It is noteworthy that the man who the Palestinians, Israelis and the international community call “the hero” of the battle against Covid-19 is not Abbas, but Shtayyeh, the economic expert turned politician. This has boosted speculation that he will succeed Abu Mazen as President, although he has declared frequently that he has no such aspiration.
Despite his success, though, some Palestinians criticise his capitalist background, the same criticism that was levelled at his predecessor, Salam Fayyad, who was very close to the Western system. However, unlike Fayyad, Shtayyeh has the advantage of belonging to Fatah, although he has failed to reconcile with Hamas and his government is under immense financial pressure due to the cut in US aid and the Israelis hanging on to the tax revenue.
Shtayyeh faces opposition from Palestinian decision-makers and Fatah security officials with their own presidential aspirations, but it is important to note that Abbas retains his grip on the PA’s security, foreign relations and financial affairs; his word trumps the Prime Minister’s. This exposes Shtayyeh’s weakness in the competition to succeed Abbas.
Hussein Sheikh, 60, is a member of the Fatah Central Committee and the Minister of Civil Affairs; Majid Faraj, 56, is the commander of the General Intelligence Service. Both supported Shtayyeh’s appointment as Prime Minister and are helping in the fight against Covid-19. Between them, they hold the keys to the relationship with Israel, which casts a shadow over their influence within the PA and the Palestinian public and this may damage Shtayyeh’s political future, even though Sheikh sought to get $34 million from Israel to fight the virus, and Faraj sent his forces to impose the precautionary lockdown on West Bank cities.
Shtayyeh’s opponents include 66-year-old Jibril Rajoub and Tawfiq Tirawi, who have support within Fatah and armed groups in Ramallah and Nablus but lack the financial acumen that the Prime Minister possesses. Other candidates hoping to succeed Abbas include Nasser Al-Qidwa, 69, Arafat’s nephew; and Mohammed Dahlan, 59, who was expelled from Fatah in 2011 and has close ties to Tirawi. Dahlan is trying to distribute funds from Abu Dhabi ruler Mohammed Bin Zayed, without buying the leverage that he seeks in the West Bank.
Seventy-year-old Mahmoud Al-Aloul, meanwhile, was appointed by Abbas as his deputy in the Fatah leadership and is watching from the sidelines. He hopes that the younger candidates will back him to be their next president. However, his great influence in Nablus alone is not enough.
In the midst of all this jockeying for position, we cannot overlook 61-year-old Marwan Barghouti, who has been in prison in Israel for twenty years. He is very popular among the people of Palestine, but his supporters have lost most of their influence within Fatah.
Ultimately, unless Abbas casts Mohammad Shtayyeh aside, the Palestinians and Israelis would do well to remember his name in the coming days. Although his path towards the PA headquarters in Ramallah will not be easy, he is a second or third generation Fatah member, and those heavy hitters also setting their sights on the presidency will not be happy that this “unwanted guest” is in the race to succeed Abu Mazen.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.