Who Will Be the Next Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority?

With Fayyad's resignation formally accepted, it remains to be seen if his reforms will withstand a power transition.
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Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad attends the opening session of an international conference of solidarity with Palestinian and Arab prisoners and detainees in Israel's prisons, in Baghdad, on December 11, 2012. (Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters)

Mahmoud Abbas formally accepted the resignation of his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, this weekend despite the best efforts of the U.S. and John Kerry to reconcile the two. The rift between Fayyad and Abbas, which had been rumored to be growing larger, was exposed in full after the resignation of the finance minister, a move Fayyad had accepted but Abbas did not. There had been, of course, rumors that Abbas had wanted to fire Fayyad, or that Fayyad had in fact been prepared to resign last month and only delayed due to President Obama's trip, but these rumors were treated with a healthy amount of skepticism, as feigning one's resignation has become a recent Palestinian pastime.

The hunt for his successor, though, is likely to prove a rather difficult quest. Reports of a rift within Fatah are what led many to start the speculation over a Fayyad resignation, and the new appointee will have to be able to bridge that divide. Many Fatah members in the West Bank feel that their base has grown weaker in recent years, and the era of Fayyad--who is not a member of Fatah--wasn't helping. Abbas will be looking for a PM who has the favorability of the people and the Palestinian elite, something exceedingly difficult to find these days. Early reports suggest two names fit the bill: Rami Hamdallah, the president of An-Najah National University in Nablus, and Muhammad Mustafa, the head of the Palestine Investment Fund.

For Rami Hamdallah, this appointment would be the first major foray into the political scene. A career academic, Hamdallah is the president of one of the largest universities in the West Bank, An-Najah, and has made his career as a leader in Palestinian education. Educated in the United Kingdom, Hamdallah has sat on the board for a number of regional education organizations. His crossover into politics centers around an involvement in two organizations: the Central Elections Committee and the Yasser Arafat foundation. Hamdallah has been the Secretary General of the CEC, the institution charged with monitoring Palestinian elections, since 2002, and has been a trustee and member of the board of the Arafat Foundation since 2008. The pick of Hamdallah would be slightly unconventional, but not improbable. He's a known quantity, a life-long academic, and a relative outsider to the political scene. As head of the CEC, he undoubtedly has had a relationship with the Hamas government in Gaza, a government that let in CEC monitors this past February to prepare for elections. Appointing a PM with a history of working with Hamas sends a clear signal that reconciliation efforts are not necessarily off the table.

Muhammad Mustafa, on the other hand, has been a career technocrat. Educated at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Mustafa spent 15 years working at the World Bank (coincidentally, so did Fayyad). Mustafa has a long-history in Palestinian economics: he was the founding CEO of the Palestine Telecommunication Company (PalTel), which is now the largest company in Palestine, and he currently heads the state-owned Palestine Investment Fund. Much like Fayyad, Mustafa's focus is on the Palestinian economy and institutions. His record at the PIF boasts of creating over 25,000 Palestinian jobs and mobilizing more than 3 billion in investment funds. The similarities between Mustafa and Fayyad abound, and it's clear that an appointment of Mustafa sends a signal of stability and economic focus to the Palestinian people.

And for Abbas, it appears to be all about what type of signal he wishes to send with the next PM. Early reports add millionaire mogul Munib al Masri and Fatah footman Azzam al Ahmad to the short list. Both would signal a further consolidation of Fatah control within the PA, but, according to Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, none of the four candidates are likely to push government-wide reforms any further. Rather, says Schanzer, their appointment would signal that the institution-building and transparency efforts would move to the periphery. Fayyad's efforts were often a point of consternation for Fatah members within the government. His acceptance of the Finance Minister's resignation late last week--which Abbas refused to accept--was a case in point. Fayyad challenged the system from the inside, but his efforts weren't always appreciated. Abbas is now likely to ensure that the next PM is lockstep with Fatah.

Years ago, Fayyad proposed an audacious two-year plan for developing Palestinian institutions, a step he viewed as vital towards declaring independence. The initiative had mixed results. The Palestinian economy is no doubt leaps and bounds further along than it was in the wake of the second intifada, but huge wealth disparities and high unemployment remain. It is somewhat morose, therefore, that the last great test of Fayyad's initiative will be to see if it withstands his own resignation. Any viable Palestinian state must be able to endure the turnover of politicians without taking drastic steps back in stability. For Fayyad, he should take comfort in this, as a smooth transition in power could be his greatest gift to the Palestinian people.

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