Commentary Magazine


Topic: Rami Hamdallah

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.

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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. 

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The End of Palestinian Reform

Many in the West have been in denial about the demise of the one genuine moderate in Palestinian politics. But it’s no longer possible to deny that Fayyadism is officially dead and buried. The long anticipated replacement of Salam Fayyad as prime minister of the Palestinian Authority finally happened yesterday. PA head Mahmoud Abbas named Rami Hamdallah as Fayyad’s successor. But not even those news outlets most dedicated to publishing happy talk about the PA and downplaying its endemic corruption could pretend that this is anything but a retrograde move. Far from continuing the American-educated technocrat’s policies aimed at stopping corruption and facilitating development, even the New York Times admits that Hamdallah is likely to keep foreign donations “in the family” and return the PA back to the bad old days when Yasir Arafat and his cronies were pocketing billions intended to better the lives of ordinary Palestinians.

Some Palestinians questioned the effect of Mr. Hamdallah’s appointment on the confidence of foreign donor nations whose funds keep the Palestinian Authority functioning. Some also suggested that Mr. Hamdallah’s closeness to Fatah meant that there would be fewer checks and balances. Mr. Fayyad was a political independent that was often at loggerheads with Fatah. The Palestinian Parliament has not functioned since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, a year after winning Palestinian elections.

One Palestinian expert, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly, said that Mr. Abbas had appointed a prime minister “from within the family,” harking back to the era of Yasir Arafat, Mr. Abbas’s predecessor. Then, the expert said, things were run “like a family business, and that was not healthy.”

The Fayyad experiment in reform was largely the result of pressure from the Bush administration to democratize the PA and to get it working on improving the lives of Palestinians in order to strengthen its case for independence. But by appointing Hamdallah, Abbas is showing that he not only doesn’t give a damn what the Obama administration thinks but that he believes a return to Arafat’s ways won’t bring about any consequences from Washington.

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Many in the West have been in denial about the demise of the one genuine moderate in Palestinian politics. But it’s no longer possible to deny that Fayyadism is officially dead and buried. The long anticipated replacement of Salam Fayyad as prime minister of the Palestinian Authority finally happened yesterday. PA head Mahmoud Abbas named Rami Hamdallah as Fayyad’s successor. But not even those news outlets most dedicated to publishing happy talk about the PA and downplaying its endemic corruption could pretend that this is anything but a retrograde move. Far from continuing the American-educated technocrat’s policies aimed at stopping corruption and facilitating development, even the New York Times admits that Hamdallah is likely to keep foreign donations “in the family” and return the PA back to the bad old days when Yasir Arafat and his cronies were pocketing billions intended to better the lives of ordinary Palestinians.

Some Palestinians questioned the effect of Mr. Hamdallah’s appointment on the confidence of foreign donor nations whose funds keep the Palestinian Authority functioning. Some also suggested that Mr. Hamdallah’s closeness to Fatah meant that there would be fewer checks and balances. Mr. Fayyad was a political independent that was often at loggerheads with Fatah. The Palestinian Parliament has not functioned since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, a year after winning Palestinian elections.

One Palestinian expert, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly, said that Mr. Abbas had appointed a prime minister “from within the family,” harking back to the era of Yasir Arafat, Mr. Abbas’s predecessor. Then, the expert said, things were run “like a family business, and that was not healthy.”

The Fayyad experiment in reform was largely the result of pressure from the Bush administration to democratize the PA and to get it working on improving the lives of Palestinians in order to strengthen its case for independence. But by appointing Hamdallah, Abbas is showing that he not only doesn’t give a damn what the Obama administration thinks but that he believes a return to Arafat’s ways won’t bring about any consequences from Washington.

The most credible observer of Palestinian politics, Khaled Abu Toameh, was even more pointed than the Times:

For Abbas and Fatah, Fayyad, a widely respected economist, posed a real problem and threat. As long as Fayyad was prime minister, it was almost impossible for Abbas and Fatah to lay their hands on hundreds of millions of dollars of international aid. …

Yet more important than getting rid of Fayyad was finding an uncharismatic and inexperienced figure that would play the role of the loyal and dutiful servant of Abbas and Fatah leaders. …

In this regard, Hamdallah will not be different from any official working in Abbas’s office. In fact, some Palestinians reacted jokingly to the appointment by saying that a secretary in Abbas’s office has more powers than the new prime minister.

Fayyad’s intentions as far as changing the political culture of the Palestinians were clear. He wanted to clean up the PA’s act and create a new constituency for policies oriented toward prosperity and peace, rather than the perpetual war fever and hatred for Israelis and Jews that keep both Fatah and Hamas afloat. But rather than being sandbagged by the U.S. and Israel, as Fayyad and some of his foreign supporters falsely claimed, his problem was always Abbas and the Fatah Party that bitterly resented his interference in their plans to keep foreign money from falling into the hands of the party and its leaders as had been the case when Arafat ruled.

Fayyad’s activities were also a threat to Abbas’s continued refusal to negotiate with Israel since the development plans he championed were predicated on the notion of a two-state solution. Without him, Abbas can continue to talk about peace to Western audiences while continuing to fuel the fires of hatred among Palestinians with no worries about Fayyad’s efforts undermining his strategy.

Without Fayyad, the pretense that the PA is anything but a kleptocracy is now gone. So, too, should the flow of American and European money to Abbas.

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