The Washington Post

New Palestinian leader seen as a caretaker

Rami Hamdallah, then-president of al-Najah National University, in June 2011. (Abed Omar Qusini/Reuters)

The new prime minister of the Palestinian Authority is an unassuming linguistics professor and university president who has spent his career mostly avoiding the roiling politics of the West Bank and Gaza and the warring between their two main political factions.

The appointment of Rami Hamdallah, 54, comes as Secretary of State John F. Kerry intensifies his efforts to get Palestinians and Israelis back to the table to talk peace.

Hamdallah, a capable president of An-Najah National University in the West Bank, was named prime minister by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday night. He is not known as a political operator but is respected among mainstream Palestinians as a scholar. He has raised millions of dollars for the university, mostly from wealthy governments in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region.

What role Hamdallah might play in any peace negotiations is unclear. One Western diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk with candor about the internal workings of the Palestinian Authority, suggested that Hamdallah would focus mostly on the bureaucracy of the Palestinian entity — making sure government payrolls are met — and leave any serious negotiations with the Israelis and Americans to Abbas and his team.

Kerry signaled his approval of the choice Sunday night with a statement lauding Hamdallah and saying that his appointment “comes at a moment of challenge, which is also an important moment of opportunity.”

Hamdallah replaces Salam Fayyad, a U.S.-educated economist who was popular with international donors and Western governments. Fayyad resigned in April after six years in office, expressing increased frustration with both Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.

Fayyad argued that neither violence nor negotiation has produced an independent Palestinian state. Instead, he pushed to create all the precursors of a state, such as functioning institutions, transparent governance, legitimate security forces and a stable economy — a doctrine that came to take his name, “Fayyadism.”

Fayyad has remained in office awaiting his successor.

Hamdallah is a member of Abbas’s political party, Fatah, and analysts in Washington and Ramallah say they assume that Hamdallah will serve as a loyal lieutenant.

“Fayyad is a very hard act to follow, having built up stature abroad with the donor community that trusted his sense of financial transparency. He also had credibility with the Palestinian public as someone who was dedicated to governance and improving the quality of life,” said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank.

“The ruling party, Fatah, and people close to Abbas saw Fayyad as a threat in postwar succession. I don't think they view Hamdallah as a threat since he does not have the same international stature,” Makovsky said. “His relationship with Abbas is bound to be more harmonious.”

“Hamdallah is the president’s man,” said Hani Masri, a Palestinian political analyst and columnist. “He doesn’t have his own political agenda. He is a practical man, a pragmatist. And he will serve as a caretaker, overseeing a government of technocrats.”

It is uncertain how long Hamdallah will remain in the job.

Abbas’s Fatah party has been locked in a stalemate with its rival, the Islamist militant organization Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.

Although Hamas and Fatah have completed a series of negotiations to reconcile their differences, efforts to form a unity government and hold new elections have repeatedly failed.

The Hamas government in Gaza condemned the appointment of Hamdallah, saying that it was not consulted. “This government, which is an illegal government, is an extension of the former government and was presented as a fait accompli,” said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.

Sufian Taha in Ramallah contributed to this report.

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
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