New Palestinian government faces challenges, ‘Deal of the Century’ complications

The biggest source of uncertainty for Palestinians’ future might be the White House.
Sunday 21/04/2019
In a tight spot. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh before leading the first cabinet meeting of his newly formed government in Ramallah, April 15. (DPA)
In a tight spot. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh before leading the first cabinet meeting of his newly formed government in Ramallah, April 15. (DPA)

LONDON - The 18th Palestinian government, which recently started work, is headed by economist Mohammad Shtayyeh, who will also lead the Interior and Religious Affairs ministries until new candidates are found.

Most of the ministers are new appointees, although Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki and Finance Minister Shukri Bishara kept their posts. Shtayyeh, a native of the Nablus area, is close to Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas.

Having had ministerial posts in previous governments, Shtayyeh has been closely involved in negotiations with Israel since the early 1990s and has been a member of Fatah’s Central Committee since 2009.

Abbas, who has headed the PA since 2005, said the new government’s priorities were to speed up reunification of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and implement steps towards legislative elections in the Palestinian territories.

Fatah’s rival Hamas rejected the new government, saying in a statement that it had “no national legitimacy” and “will reinforce the chances of severing the West Bank from Gaza.” Hamas and Fatah signed a reconciliation agreement in Cairo in October 2017, which was never fully implemented because of disputes over how to share power.

Two factions in the Palestine Liberation Organisation did not take part in the new government. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine called for a unity government that included Hamas.

Observers said the new government, which includes many Abbas loyalists, is meant to further isolate Hamas. The government seemed to be “a continuation, rather than a radical break, from the outgoing Hamdallah government,” Hugh Lovatt, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Agence France-Presse.

The new administration will face many challenges and “they are all quite overwhelming,” said Nour Odeh, a political analyst and former government spokeswoman.

Key among them is a lack of funds because of a tax dispute with Israel and US aid cuts. Israel has been withholding 5% of the monthly tax revenues it transfers to the PA, stating that the Palestinians were using the money for stipends to the families of jailed Palestinian militants. As a result, the PA has refused to accept any tax transfers until the full amount is restored as well as cut public sector wages in February and March.

Two days after having been sworn in, Shtayyeh called on Arab countries to step up their financial support for the PA. He said he wants a meeting with donor countries on April 30 to discuss “the ongoing financial war” waged by Israel and the United States.

A World Bank report said Israeli authorities should relax restrictions on the import of dual-use goods with civilian and military applications to the Palestinian territories, saying the limits harm the Palestinian economy. The report said the Palestinian economy was “facing a severe fiscal shock” due to the tax dispute.

“Without money, the government will be squeezed between a rock and a hard place,” said Odeh, adding that the government needed to change its economic policies. Odeh said Shtayyeh had a “bold” economic and political vision but needed a lot of support, which, she warned, might not be forthcoming from the international community when it comes to the tax dispute.

Beyond the financial realm, the new government faces pressure from human rights groups. Since 2014, Amnesty International said it has documented “escalating human rights violations by Palestinian security forces in the West Bank,” while highlighting violations in Gaza. Human rights organisations also documented violations by Israeli security forces.

The new Palestinian government, said Saleh Higazi, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty International, “needs to urgently address the deteriorating human rights situation by ensuring respect for freedom of expression and association and stopping arbitrary arrests and torture by Palestinian security forces.”

The biggest source of uncertainty for Palestinians’ future might be the White House. Addressing the new cabinet April 13, Abbas said the first challenge would be the “Deal of the Century,” the much-anticipated peace plan from US President Donald Trump.

US officials have remained tight-lipped about details of the plan but senior adviser Jared Kushner, who is Trump’s son-in-law, told foreign diplomats that the deal would not be released before the end of Ramadan in June, the Jerusalem Post reported.

The Palestinian leadership, both in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, have rejected the plan even before it was released. A report in the Washington Post said the plan would stop short of offering a fully separate and sovereign Palestinian state while focusing on practical improvements to Palestinian lives.

In his speech to the new cabinet, Abbas said Palestinians rejected the deal “because it excluded Jerusalem from Palestine… There is no state without Jerusalem, no state in Gaza, no state without Gaza.”

Whereas the Palestinian stance on the peace plan is clear, Washington has worked hard to convince Arab countries to support the initiative. The deal’s chances of success will depend on what signals come from Amman, Cairo and Riyadh.