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Hamdallah, We Hardly Knew Ye

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas thought he was getting a pliant, user-friendly prime minister when he appointed Rami Hamdallah to replace Salam Fayyad. But two weeks after Abbas replaced the Western favorite who tried to rid the PA of corruption with what was thought to be a reliably pro-Fatah academic, he now finds himself looking for another replacement. Hamdallah quit today and, according to Reuters, posted an explanation on his Facebook page that said the decision was due to “outside interferences in his powers and duties.” In other words, even though, unlike Fayyad, Hamdallah was a Fatah Party member with no known political ambitions of his own, he still found it impossible to act as a façade for the PA kleptocracy.

Contrary to the slant of the Reuters piece, the main complication of this event for the PA isn’t the fact that Secretary of State John Kerry will be going back to the Middle East soon in his quixotic effort to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The Palestinians aren’t going to go back to the table to negotiate with Israel no matter who is their prime minister and everyone except Kerry knows it. Abbas’s problem is finding a respectable front man for the PA in order to keep foreign aid pouring in to his government. With Fayyad, who was the first Palestinian leader to ever try to improve the lot of his people, there was a hope that the PA could be transformed from the corrupt fiefdom created by Yasir Arafat. Without him, all Abbas has to offer the West are Fatah functionaries who know their only job is to make sure the theft and graft that Fayyad tried to stop resumes.

There’s no telling what Hamdallah might have accomplished had he stayed in office and tried to follow in Fayyad’s footsteps. But even before, as scholar Jonathan Schanzer said on Twitter, New York Times pundit and Fayyad cheerleader Thomas Friedman got a chance to write a column praising Hamdallahism, the new PM realized that he was there to play the fool for Abbas and his cronies and wouldn’t play along.

But before we waste too much time lamenting yet another lost opportunity for the Palestinians to change their lives, let’s understand that Hamdallah would have faced the same problem that sunk Fayyad had he stayed in office. The Palestinian political culture remains one in which a focus on good government or transparency is a minor concern. Fayyad was a man without a party or a political constituency when he tried to change the West Bank. That doesn’t just mean that he was without the support of a major faction such as Fatah. It means that by stopping corruption he placed himself in a position where he threatened the vast network of no-show and no-work jobs (paid for with foreign contributions) that employ a significant percentage of the Palestinian workforce. Not only could Fayyad not count on any organization or grass roots groups with Palestinian society to support him, he knew all too well that the organizations and people that run things were determined to stop him. No amount of Israeli or American support could have saved Fayyad, and the same would have been true of Hamdallah.

A PA that is too belligerent and too weak to make peace with Israel is a bad bet for foreign donors, but don’t expect that to stop the Europeans and perhaps even Kerry from continuing to try to bribe the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table or to create a viable government. It won’t work. As Fayyad and Hamdallah learned, the point of Palestinian politics is to perpetuate the conflict with Israel and to enrich Fatah officials. Anyone who gets in the way of that will last as long as Hamdallah did.