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A Prime Minister for Peace and the Unity of Palestine?

By Stephen Royle.

On Sunday June 2nd Professor Rami Hamdallah was tasked by President Mahmoud Abbas to form a new Palestinian government. Amongst the myriad of newspaper reports that emerged the following day were accusations that this relatively unknown figure was a non-entity, lacks political experience or was simply a scholar. However, the dismissive nature of these comments not only proved a distinct lack of knowledge regarding the environment in which Hamdallah has honed his leadership qualities, but they also misunderstood the nature of the appointment. This piece will therefore provide a more detailed political narrative regarding Hamdallah's experience while addressing the potential role that the new PM will undertake and the many challenges that will confront him in the coming months. In doing so, reasons will be presented as to why it is important for the international community to confirm their support, particularly at this current juncture when unity talks between the domestic parties, peace negotiations with Israel and financial difficulties enhanced by a burgeoning debt, pose considerable stresses to an already unstable situation.

The Emerging Prime Minister

Hamdallah heralds from Anupta near Tulkarem in the north of the West Bank. Embarking on an academic path he specialised in linguistics, obtaining an undergraduate degree from Jordan before moving onto the UK where he was awarded with a Masters from the University of Manchester and PhD from Lancaster University. On returning to the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt), Hamdallah rose through the ranks of academia at An Najah National University in Nablus where he became President in 1998. A published writer, avid reader and enthusiastic lecturer, he earned his reputation as a scholar and academic leader not only in the Middle East but throughout the Mediterranean region and Europe, becoming a committee member and representative of numerous international academic organisations. Indeed, under his tenure An Najah University has developed in both size and quality with 20,000 students and 3,000 staff making it the largest university in the oPt, while facilities such as a state of the art media centre, a specialised IT centre, plus a teaching hospital make it a valuable institution for the sustainable development of a Palestinian state.

However, such success in a highly politicised and restricted environment has required a considerable degree of savoir faire, particularly in a university that has shown itself in the past to be a microcosm of the larger unstable framework, a place where political actors such as chief negotiator for the Palestinian Authority (PA) Saeb Erakat, and Nasr Al-Shaer the former Deputy Prime Minister of the Hamas formed government from 2006, form part of the academic faculty. At times, disharmony amongst both staff and students reflecting either the Fatah-Hamas divide or more local grievances have on occasion spilled over into violent confrontations. In facing the constant threat of Israeli incursions (as witnessed during the First Intifada), it has been Hamdallah's ability to negotiate and remain uncompromising in many of his decisions in the process that has created the necessary stability for An Najah to flourish. In sum, during a presidency that has covered an intifada (the Second) and an election victory for Hamas, Hamdallah has proven himself to be a strong leader, and one that has chosen to put the welfare of society and education above all discriminatory accusations and political beliefs. During a meeting with Hamdallah in 2011, he stated "We Palestinians have helped build countries all over the world, particularly the Gulf, and one day we will have the chance to build our own. It is therefore important that we put education at the foundation of this development as to enable our competitive growth".

Maintaining this emphasis in regards to An Najah has however required considerable infrastructural development and subsequently financial support, which under the circumstances of the occupation has proved a difficult task. According to a financial advisor of An Najah "There is a sustainable running cost deficit of 14%. However, with the state covering only 2% of the overall costs and tuition fees 73%, there is a constant need to boost revenue by other means, through expat donors or international projects for example." Based on an ethos of 'build it and they will not only stay but come', the establishing of alumni networks and an international relations office under the guidance of Hamdallah have gone some way to supporting this goal, but it is the current Prime Minister's relations with the Gulf States that have provided the most significant source of funding for the University's expansion. As an advisor of Hamdallah stated "he has spent weeks at a time in the Gulf negotiating with various dignitaries which more often than not has produced positive results". This is evidenced by the 870 seat theatre built on the University's new campus with funds provided by Prince Turki Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia. It is therefore estimated that during his time as President of An Najah, Hamdallah through various networks has helped raise US$400 million for the University.

It is precisely this acumen which led to Hamdallah being appointed as Secretary General of the Palestinian Central Elections Commission in 2002, where as part of a body called by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter as "of the most honest and effective I have ever known", he oversaw the 2006 Legislative elections. Although to the dismay of the international community this resulted in a victory for the Hamas-led political bloc, it did nevertheless universally bolster the reputation of Hamdallah as a transparent and efficient professional, which also led to his being selected as the Chairman of the Palestine Securities Exchange in 2008. National development and politics have therefore remained an integral part of Hamdallah's career path and it is understandable that as his credibility has increased, so have the demands for his expertise amongst the local and international political elite. As a close associate of Hamdallah said "even Abbas and Fayyad themselves have sought consul with Rami at regular intervals".

A Poisoned Chalice?

Despite being a very important period of time for Palestinian politics, the restrictive framework in which the PA's political leaders have to work within can be considered somewhat of a curse rather than an opportunity. Therefore, for close observers the resignation of Fayyad from his position as Prime Minister did not come as such a surprise. Relations with Abbas, Fatah and Hamas were at an all time low, and with national debt reaching US$4.2 billion there have been justifications for concern regarding the long term stability of the PA and Palestine itself. Given the conditions and lack of progression in regards to peace negotiations, Abbas has also begun to feel the strain and his reputation amongst the international community has waned somewhat, particularly since Fayyad stepped down. In Rami Hamdallah however, Abbas has had a natural replacement for PM in waiting, a man whose credibility spreads across the political divide plus the diplomatic community and therefore is a person who has been presented as the last opportunity for Abbas to maintain international relations and ultimately funding for the PA.

Nevertheless, from the perspective of the new PM the situation inherited is far from ideal and relative success will depend on how much political and financial flexibility he will be able to obtain in implementing an administrative strategy. It has been stated that Hamdallah will fulfil his duties as an interim PM up until August, when it is thought that upon the announcement of successful unity talks between Fatah and Hamas, elections will finally take place. Nevertheless, this as history tells us is an uncertain process and despite Hamdallah's reluctance to continue beyond this period, the interim situation could be prolonged. It is therefore advised that Hamdallah be given the necessary space to fulfil his role as a proven leader. This of course will require concessions and less interference from the President's office, which up until now under both Arafat and Abbas has held considerable sway over Palestinian national affairs. Even Abbas himself has suffered such restrictions when serving as Prime Minister alongside Arafat and a repeat of the Fayyad situation will only further decrease his popularity domestically and internationally. From a financial perspective it is also essential that the PM be able to service both the debt incurred under the state building process and the needs of the people, who require access to land, water, work and finance. In the short term, Israel can aid this by agreeing upon a return to the logistic agreements and financial mechanisms developed under the Oslo Accords and Paris protocol respectively, despite their evident flaws, as this will allow for a more consistent flow of goods and revenue, particularly the passage of taxation from Israel to the oPt. Beyond this, new agreements will need to be forged but as it stands it is in the best interest of Abbas and the Israeli government for that matter to allow the PM a less restrictive framework in which to work within.

The Challenge Ahead

If the international community is determined in promoting peace and a two state solution then it should fully endorse the appointment of Rami Hamdallah as Prime Minister by providing both financial and political support for his office's activities. For the first time then, and unlike his predecessor, Hamdallah is a leader who by majority commands the respect of the Palestinian people, domestic political parties, Gulf States, Israel and key Middle East peace process actors such as the United States, United Kingdom and France. Therefore, acknowledging prospective unity, pushing for negotiations that recognise the growing imbalance between Israeli settlement expansion and Palestinian needs, and fulfilling funding obligations will provide sufficient leeway for the PM to carry out his domestic duties in the short term. As we know, the long term is uncertain but by pledging support to the new PM at this current juncture will undoubtedly improve stability and perhaps as a consequential positive promote Hamdallah's name as a future President, a prospect that would be welcomed by many internally and externally.

June 2013

Stephen Royle is a PhD candidate at Lancaster University and over the past five years has operated as an international relations consultant for An Najah National University.