Can a low-key professor fill the shoes of Washington's West Bank darling?

Salam Fayyad, who resigned as prime minister in April, was renowned internationally for winning donor trust. Rami Hamdallah, head of a West Bank university, is comparatively unknown.

Abed Omar Qusini/Reuters/File
Rami Hamdallah, head of Najah University, speaks during a graduation ceremony at the university in the West Bank city of Nablus June 2011.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas selected a little-known university chief to fill the outsized shoes of former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, renowned by international diplomats and in Israel for turning the Palestinian Authority from a basket case to a functioning government.

Rami Hamdallah, a linguist who heads the West Bank’s Najah University, is touted by the Palestinian government as a political independent, but analysts say he is an inexperienced politician largely dependent on Mr. Abbas. That raises questions about whether he will continue Mr. Fayyad’s record of groundbreaking reform – sometimes at the expense of his relationship with the president – at a time the US is pushing to revive the peace process.

"He’s a gray figure," says Gershon Baskin, an Israeli activist and expert on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process who sometimes tries to pass messages between the sides. "I think that Abbas was looking for someone who is an administrator and not a politician, while retaining the confidence of the international community that the PA would not become corrupt."

Fayyad announced in April that he was stepping down after years of tension with politicians in Abbas's Fatah party, who feared Fayyad's growing political clout outside the party and resented his reforms that scaled back the influence of the party.

Abbas accepted the resignation despite appeals by Washington, which considered Fayyad, a US-trained economist, the best figure to shepherd continued reform of the government and to oversee Palestinian security services in the West Bank that coordinate with the Israeli military, a key element of stability there.

Observers speculate that Abbas wants another prime minister who would be seen by the international community as a technocrat independent of his party’s machine. But that could also hinder his ability to govern effectively. 

"He has little or no political experience and is unlikely to deal with the challenges that he will face," says Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian political analyst.

A new friend for Kerry, or new obstacle?

The changeover comes at a critical diplomatic juncture. US Secretary of State John Kerry has spent the last three months on an intensive push to renew Israeli- Palestinian peace talks for the first time in four years, and has said he expects answers from both sides within weeks about whether that will be possible.

Mr. Kerry is pushing a plan to channel $4 billion in outside investment into private sector development in the West Bank as a way of boosting prospects for peace negotiations. A key to getting that investment will be reassuring businesses that the Palestinian prime minister is keeping the government running properly.

A breakthrough would be a boon for the new prime minister, but if Kerry falls short, Palestinian relations with Israel are expected to grow more contentious, further complicating the prime minister’s job.

In that case, Palestinians expect that Abbas will renew efforts to pressure Israel in international bodies – an initiative it put on hold to allow Kerry more time to get negotiations going – and push for reconciliation with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Similar moves in the past prompted a cutoff of Israeli transfer of customs and tax revenue collected on the Palestinians’ behalf, which left Fayyad in a severe cash crunch that prevented the PA from paying salaries of some of its employees.

Given the uncertainty, many Palestinians view Mr. Hamdallah’s appointment as a temporary move.

"Abbas wants to see what wants to see what Kerry can achieve, and after than will form another government," says Hani Masri, a Palestinian political analyst.  

Bringing in backup

Recognizing Hamdallah’s lack of economic experience, Abbas appointed Mohammed Mustafa, the head of the sovereign wealth fund Palestine Investment Fund, as his deputy for economic affairs. Shukri Bishara, the former head of Arab Bank in the West Bank, has been tapped as finance minister. Ziyad Abu Amr, an academic-turned-politician, has been tapped as his diplomatic deputy.

But political figures brought in to assist Hamdallah could also further weaken his standing. Ultimately, lacking the reputation of Mr. Fayyad, he will need the full backing of Abbas.

"Without help, without full coordination, any person will fail," says Kadoura Fares, a former government minister from Fatah. "Can he manage issues in the PA from a position of strength? The question is whether he can organize [donor] money, and pay public salaries."

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