Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday appointed his long-time advisor, Mohammad Shtayyeh, to serve as the next Palestinian prime minister. Selecting Shtayyeh, a pragmatic Palestinian bureaucrat with a long history in Abbas’ Fatah party, may be a positive move for the Palestinians after years of political stagnation.
The 61-year-old Shtayyeh earned a PhD in economic development in the UK and has held high-level governmental and academic economic-related roles for the Palestinians. Shtayyeh is an experienced negotiator with Israel, having occupied senior roles in the 1991 Madrid Talks and the 2013-2014 talks facilitated by former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. He is known for his pragmatism on critical issues such as security cooperation.
Shtayyeh replaces Rami Hamdallah, who resigned on January 29, and was widely seen as an impotent leader. Hamdallah also resigned in 2013, two weeks after Abbas initially appointed him, after he reportedly discovered that his position lacked real power, but he continued to serve for nearly six more years.
Shtayyeh’s appointment comes amid a looming Palestinian succession crisis. Abbas is 83 years old, reportedly in poor health, and is currently serving year 15 of a four-year term. There are several names swirling around as possible replacements, but Abbas refuses to name a successor, for fear of a political challenge.
Many of the possible successors have caused heartburn in both Washington and Jerusalem. For example, Jibril Rajoub, a long-time Fatah politician, has suggested he would nuke Israel if he could, endorsed terrorism, and was recently punished by FIFA for a campaign of intimidation against Argentinian soccer phenom Lionel Messi. Mohammad Dahlan, another candidate, lives abroad and, as Fatah’s former Gaza strongman, oversaw the torture of numerous Palestinians and was responsible for allowing Hamas to overtake Gaza in 2007. Another popular Palestinian figure, Marwan Barghouti, is currently in Israeli jail for murder as the former head of one of the Palestinian armed factions.
By appointing Shtayyeh as prime minister, Abbas has potentially given his ally an inside track to become the next president. After all, Abbas previously served as Yasser Arafat’s prime minister before becoming president after Arafat’s death in November 2005. Though the prime minister role is largely powerless, a person with Shtayyeh’s experience and capabilities could elevate the position. It is still unclear what prompted Abbas to name a more formidable figure to this post. But it comes amidst years of criticism in the West, as well as from some of his own allies, about the potential for a succession crisis, particularly as Abbas’ health has deteriorated in recent years.
While Shtayyeh’s pragmatism is reassuring, Israel is likely to remain lukewarm. Shtayyeh has been a proponent of the lawfare campaign to prosecute Israel at the International Criminal Court. Of course, Shtayyeh’s desire for pitched court battles pale in comparison to harsh or even violent rhetoric of some of the other candidates.
Shtayyeh’s appointment should be a welcomed step for the Palestinians. There has been little political progress – and even a fair amount of regression – in recent years under the octogenarian Abbas. Shtayyeh will surely face an uphill battle with no end in sight to Palestinian internecine divisions, no discernible advancement in the peace process, and a self-defeating Palestinian boycott of the Trump administration. However, Shtayyeh’s new role presents an opportunity for a Palestinian reset. The Palestinians, the Israelis, and the Trump administration should take advantage of this opportunity.
David May is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSamuelMay. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.