The new Palestinian government headed by Prime Minister Dr Mohammed Shtayyeh was sworn in Sunday in Ramallah. The weeks of political uncertainty have come to an end, after former Prime Minister Dr Rami Hamdallah submitted his resignation to President Mahmoud Abbas in January this year. This is the 18th government since the founding of the Palestinian Authority in 1994.
The cabinet comprises 21 ministers of whom 16 are new to the office. Only five ministers have already served in previous cabinets, including veterans such as Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki and Finance Minister Shukri Bishara. Among the new ministers are four from the Gaza Strip without Hamas affiliation as well as three representatives of small political factions: the Palestinian People’s Party, the Palestinian Democratic Union and the Palestinian Popular Struggle Front. The vast majority of the cabinet originates from Fatah. Hamas criticized the formation of the government shortly after the inauguration, calling it a “continuation of Fatah’s policy of exclusivity and exclusion”, thereby denying its legitimacy. Beyond that, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) rooted in the PLO refused to participate in it. Al-Mubadara also declined by linking the question of joining the government to the demand for elections.
After two, at least nominally, independent Prime Ministers, Mohammed Shtayyeh is the first member of Fatah to hold this office during Abbas’ reign as President. In the early 1990s, he was a member of the Palestinian delegation during Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. From 2005 to 2006 and 2008 to 2010, he served as the Minister of Public Works and Housing within the PA and was elected to the Fatah Central Committee in 2005. Before his appointment as Prime Minister, the 61-year-old from Nablus was minister at the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction, administering all national projects funded by the PA. Therefore, Shtayyeh is considered an experienced politician deeply involved in the internal structures of Fatah, PLO and PA, and above that as a loyalist to President Abbas.
The new Prime Minister, an economist, takes on the difficult legacy of Rami Hamdallah, whose rather technocratic government was primarily intended to foster national reconciliation, but which had to face external as well as internal discontent in the end. In this context, Shtayyeh's appointment can be seen as another step to close the ranks of Fatah behind President Abbas in order to consolidate his power. Abbas has given Shtayyeh a seven-point letter of assignment calling on Shtayyeh to, inter alia, prioritize national unity, legislative elections, and to boost the national economy. At the beginning of this term, the new government faces elementary economic and political concerns like the withholding of tax revenues by Israel and the halt in US aid to the Palestinians, high unemployment and poverty rates, as well as the obscure peace plan by US-President Donald Trump casting its shadow. All these issues tighten the government’s narrow corridor of action. Shtayyeh is expected to maneuver the institutions of the PA through these times.
Politically, Mohammad Shtayyeh has distinguished himself as a strong advocate of the two-state solution, for which he repeatedly pleaded in op-eds for the New York Times and Haaretz. In the past, he has harshly spoken out against Israeli settlement activities and Israeli occupation: For example, in August 2017, when he contested the status quo in the Al-Quds newspaper and called for the Palestinian government to transform itself into an authority of resistance against the settlements. Likewise, he categorically rejects Trump’s peace plan and declared it “born dead”, after reports claimed that it would not include a Palestinian state. Thus, Shtayyeh breathes new political life into the Prime Minister’s office and does not have the traditionally apolitical attitude than his predecessor.
According to a recent study by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center (JMCC) and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), almost half of the respondents in the West Bank do not expect any difference between Shtayyeh’s government performance compared to his predecessor. A good 21% are hoping for an improvement. Trust in important political personalities is at an alarming low throughout Palestine. It remains to be seen whether the new Prime Minister will be able to set his own positions in order to restore the public’s confidence, or whether he will accept his political mandate from President Abbas on important political issues. In any case, difficult times lie ahead of the new Palestinian government.