The New Shtayyeh Government in Palestine: Challenges and Prospects

On March 10, 2019 President Mahmoud Abbas asked Fatah Central Committee Member Dr. Mohammad Shtayyeh to form the 18th Palestinian government after the resignation of Dr. Rami Hamdallah and his government of national accord on January 29. According to the Palestinian Basic Law, Shtayyeh will have three weeks to accomplish his task; the deadline, however, could be extended by two more weeks, if deemed necessary. The Fatah Central Committee, which recommended the formation of the new government, specified that the latter include only representatives of PLO factions and independents, to the exclusion of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Several key leftist factions expressed their disinclination to participate in the new government if the Islamist groups were excluded.

Shtayyeh’s Mission Impossible

In his letter of designation,1 Abbas entrusted the new prime minister-designate with the following seven priorities in support of the resolutions reached by the Palestinian leadership:

  1. To actively pursue Palestinian national unity and restore national legitimacy to Gaza.
  2. To undertake all necessary steps to hold legislative elections in the southern and northern provinces, including East Jerusalem, to strengthen democracy and a multiparty system.
  3. To extend moral and material support to the victims of occupation and their families, including martyrs, prisoners, and the injured.
  4. To strengthen the steadfastness of the Palestinian people to remain on their land in the face of occupation and colonization policies.
  5. To continue to defend Jerusalem and its Christian and Muslim holy places against attempts by the occupation to change the city’s national identity and its historic and religious significance.
  6. To continue to build the institutions of the State of Palestine and to advance its national economy, to empower women and youth, and to strengthen the culture of peace based on the rule of law, its independence and the protection of fundamental rights, particularly freedom of opinion and expression within the legal framework.
  7. To strengthen the partnership between the public and private sectors in the pursuit of liberation and economic development.

In his acceptance remarks, the prime minister-designate committed to be inclusive in his consultations with all relevant political and social factions before submitting his new cabinet to the president for approval. An economist by training, Shtayyeh acknowledged the difficult political, economic, and fiscal circumstances in Palestine and expressed his unwavering determination and optimism in defeating occupation and the pursuit of independent statehood.

In his acceptance remarks, the prime minister-designate committed to be inclusive in his consultations with all relevant political and social factions before submitting his new cabinet to the president for approval.  

Who is Mohammad Shtayyeh?

Similar to his predecessor Rami Hamdallah, Mohammad Shtayyeh is a former academic who served as assistant professor of economics at Birzeit University. He holds a master’s degree (1983) and a doctorate (1989) in development studies from Sussex University. Shtayyeh completed his undergraduate studies in economics and business administration at Birzeit University in 1981.

Shtayyeh has been a lifelong loyal activist in Fatah although he does not seem to enjoy a wide base of political support among the party elite. He had a close relationship with late PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and maintained a similar relationship with his successor Mahmoud Abbas. He came to political prominence in the 1990s with the series of negotiations surrounding the Oslo Accords. Although Shtayyeh has been traditionally identified with Palestinian supporters of the two-state solution, he has been alienated from the concept in recent years, blaming Israeli intransigence for the diminished prospects for two states.

After the PLO returned to the West Bank and Gaza and the Palestinian National Authority (PA) was formed, Shtayyeh was appointed2 to a long list of board memberships and administrative positions including in the following private and public sector institutions: the Technical Development Corporation, the forerunner to the Palestine Investment Fund; the Palestinian Housing Council, a nonprofit dedicated to alleviating housing problems; the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, a tripartite entity facilitating international aid to Palestinians; the Palestinian Development Fund; the Islamic Development Bank; the Palestine Securities Exchange, the Palestine stock exchange based in Nablus; the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction, an independent institution focused on strengthening the economy; and the Arab American University, a private university based in Jenin and Ramallah. He was elected as a member of the Fatah Central Committee in 2009, as minister of public works in 2005, and as minister of housing in 2009.

Likely Aspects of Shtayyeh’s Political Platform

It might be too early to speculate about the political agenda of a government that is yet to be formed; however, Shtayyeh has been quite vocal and forthcoming about his political commitments. The following themes came across clearly in his post-designation interviews3 and could play a key role in his modus operandi and emerging political platform over the next few weeks.

Inclusivity. Shtayyeh described his new government as all-inclusive, adding that it is “the government of all Palestinians.” He insisted that it will be “open to all” and its “political program will be drafted after listening to the priorities of the citizenry.” Shtayyeh is well versed in Palestinian politics to know that his efforts will fail if they are not perceived as broadly representative by a suspicious public opinion. He is also fully aware that significant non-PLO members, like the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) and other groups, are either excluded from the process or not participating in protest.

Shtayyeh described his new government as all-inclusive, adding that it is “the government of all Palestinians.” He insisted that it will be “open to all” and its “political program will be drafted after listening to the priorities of the citizenry.”

Makeup of cabinet. Shtayyeh told Palestine TV that “the government will include members of Fatah as well as other factions.” He specified that representatives of civil society, the business community, regional and women representatives” will also be selected. The actual makeup of the cabinet will depend on Shtayyeh’s negotiating skills in persuading the broadest cross section of political groups and independents to join his government directly or indirectly through independent affiliates.

Hamas and other opposition. The prime minister-designate indicated that “Should Hamas opt not to participate in the government, the doors shall remain open until the end of the Palestinian division.” He insisted that eventually “all parties will take part in it.” In the interim, he would take into consideration the views of factions that choose not to participate. This is a difficult and sensitive matter that derailed the patient and persistent efforts of his predecessor. Palestinian political realities since 2007 prove that ending the Fatah-Hamas conflict is easier said than done.

Palestinian political realities since 2007 prove that ending the Fatah-Hamas conflict is easier said than done.  

Gaza policy. Shtayyeh emphasized that addressing the concerns of the people of Gaza and alleviating their dire humanitarian needs will be a top priority for his government, which will focus on a speedy end to the existing division under the guidance of President Abbas. The problem he is apt to face lies in the lack of trust that Abbas enjoys in Gaza where, according to the most recent public opinion polls, 68 percent of the public demands Abbas’s resignation. This is further complicated by the escalating unrest in Gaza, witnessed during the past few days, over deteriorating economic conditions.

Parliamentary elections. Shtayyeh highlighted the importance of these elections and committed his government to ensure the broadest possible public participation in them. “The ballot box,” he reiterated, “is the best mechanism to confront the occupation” and the “deal of the century.” He urged the international community to pressure Israel to allow such elections in Jerusalem. Clearly, Shtayyeh realizes the importance of national elections in Palestine to the legitimization of his government. Unfortunately, life under occupation deprives the new Palestinian prime minister from conducting such elections in a free and democratic manner to the satisfaction of Palestinian public opinion in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem.

Shtayyeh realizes the importance of national elections in Palestine to the legitimization of his government. Unfortunately, life under occupation deprives the new Palestinian prime minister from conducting such elections in a free and democratic manner.

Jerusalem policy. Rescuing East Jerusalem from total Israeli annexation and incorporating it in future Palestinian statehood is a top priority for both Abbas and Shtayyeh. They both know firsthand the difficulties involved in securing the financial and political support needed from Arabs, Muslims, and others to realize their objective in the face of ongoing Israeli annexation and growing American bias in this regard.

The Palestinian economy. The ultimate challenge for the Shtayyeh government is going to be its economic performance at this difficult time, when Israel is aggressively holding Palestinian tax funds and the United States is eliminating its economic and even humanitarian support for the Palestinian people. Shtayyeh revealed details of recent efforts by the PA to solicit Arab and international support to make up for US cuts; he admitted, however, that the road ahead is very difficult. He is quite aware that Palestinian public opinion is fully engaged and agitated about Palestine’s economic circumstances. Indeed, the most recent poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) puts Abbas’s approval rating in the West Bank at 34 percent and in Gaza at 24 percent.

Can Shtayyeh Succeed Where His Predecessors Failed?

Clearly, Prime Minister-designate Shtayyeh is as qualified as any of his capable predecessors yet simultaneously, he is as vulnerable as they were due to the unique Palestinian predicament of living under protracted Israeli military occupation. Currently in its 52nd year, the occupation is a dominant force in the ability to govern Palestine effectively and is capable of causing any new government to succeed or fail, regardless of its makeup, skill, or political platform. Therefore, the new government headed by Mohammad Shtayyeh is starting its challenging term in office with a clear disadvantage.

Significantly, Palestinian constituents are quite divided about the timing and substance of the change in government initiated by President Abbas and the Fatah Central Committee. The results of Public Opinion No. 71, just released on March 19, 2019 by PCPSR, show that 38 percent of Palestinians are satisfied, and 41 percent dissatisfied with Shtayyeh’s choice as prime minister. In Gaza, dissatisfaction stands at 51 percent. In addition, 48 percent of respondents believe that the Shtayyeh government “will not succeed in achieving reconciliation and unifying the West Bank and the Gaza Strip,” and 44 percent think that it would fail to organize legislative and presidential elections, as instructed by President Abbas. More importantly, however, about half of all Palestinians believe that the new government “will not be able to improve economic conditions” in Palestine.

Palestinian constituents are quite divided about the timing and substance of the change in government initiated by President Abbas and the Fatah Central Committee.

Beyond the overpowering Israeli occupation and a jaded or weary Palestinian public, there are three other factors that diminish Shtayyeh’s chances for success. First and foremost, he is the prime minister in a hybrid presidential political system where the decision-making process is scattered and inefficient. In this context, the prime minister cannot compete for influence with the president, the PLO Executive Committee, or the Fatah Central Committee. It will be virtually impossible for Shtayyeh to prevail and get his way in such a convoluted environment. Second, the Palestinians are more in need of a liberation strategy to end Israeli occupation than a vulnerable government to manage security for the occupier, for which the PA has shouldered responsibility over many years. Third, the Palestinians are in desperate need for reconciliation and a unified internal front; by choosing a Fatah member as prime minister, President Abbas and the Fatah Central Committee have in effect blocked any chances for resuming talks with Hamas—a failure that led to the resignation of the outgoing Hamdallah government last January.

Consequently, national reconciliation is less likely today. This is quite unfortunate because the Palestinian people need to score a meaningful and significant political success at this difficult juncture in their history.

Khalil E. Jahshan is the Executive Director of Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Khalil E. Jahshan click here

1 Source is in Arabic.
2 Source is in Arabic.
3 Source is in Arabic.