New PA government politically and economically shackled
A new Palestinian Authority (PA) government was sworn in last week, days after Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and other right-wing parties won a majority in the Israeli Knesset. The contrast between the new Palestinian government, headed by Mohammed Shtayyeh, and Netanyahu’s coalition, which will be formed in the coming weeks, underlines the political reality in both Israel and the Occupied Territories.
Unlike the previous government of Rami Hamdallah, Shtayyeh was unable to deliver a broad-based Cabinet. All ministers are from the West Bank and Fatah has the biggest share of portfolios. The Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) other major factions — the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine — refused to participate and insisted on a national unity government. As expected, Hamas rejected the new government and said that it will only solidify the division between Gaza and the West Bank. It went further to add that Shtayyeh’s Fatah-led Cabinet will play a part in implementing Donald Trump’s “ultimate deal.”
Shtayyeh’s first order of business was to underline that his government will follow an austerity program. The PA’s financial situation is critical and President Mahmoud Abbas has appealed to Arab countries to provide him with an economic and political safety net. At an Arab League meeting in Cairo on Sunday, Arab foreign ministers committed to pay $100 million per month to the ailing PA. They also rejected any peace plan that does not conform to the Arab Peace Initiative and international benchmarks.
This was not the first time that Arab countries have promised to support the PA financially. Clearly, Abbas is hoping that, this time, Arab financial aid will continue to pour in for a long time. Last month, Israel decided to withhold $138 million in monthly tax revenues that it collects on behalf of the PA, thus deepening the financial crisis that Abbas has faced since he stopped receiving US aid.
PA employees have seen their monthly salaries cut by almost half as part of the austerity measures. It is not clear how Shtayyeh, a British-educated economist, will manage to keep the PA in business.
The Palestinians have no leverage whatsoever in Washington, especially as the White House puts the final touches to its regional peace plan
Aside from the economic challenge, the new government can do little to end the intra-Palestinian rift. Months of Egyptian-sponsored mediation have failed to end more than a decade of political separation between Gaza and the West Bank. Moreover, Hamas, which is also facing financial difficulties, is engaged in behind-the-scenes negotiations with Israel to reach a long-term truce that will loosen the economic blockade. Such a deal, if implemented, would weaken hopes for the restoration of PA control over Gaza and make the separation of the two entities permanent.
Abbas has threatened to take unprecedented measures against Israel if Netanyahu carries out his election promise to annex parts of the West Bank. But any move that he takes, whether to end security coordination or withdraw recognition of Israel, will only backfire. In fact, he now finds himself in the worst possible position, both politically and economically.
There is also a growing belief in some Arab and European capitals that the Palestinian president may have suffered a self-inflicted wound by cutting all ties with the US administration following Trump’s controversial recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The Palestinians have no leverage whatsoever in Washington, especially as the White House puts the final touches to its regional peace plan.
After more than two years of waiting, we now have a timeline for the unveiling of the peace plan, which will take place in June at the end of Ramadan. While no one knows what the plan contains, it is clear that major parts of it have already been or are in the process of being implemented. They include the fate of East Jerusalem, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and the recognition of the legality of Israeli settlement blocks in the West Bank, along with Israel’s right to remain in control of the Jordan Valley.
What the Palestinians will get in the plan is vague, but it goes without saying that it will be much less than the minimum they would agree to. Moreover, Netanyahu is about to form the most far-right government in Israel’s history and his ruling coalition no longer recognizes the Oslo Accords or any agreement that came later, much less an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank.
Under such circumstances, one wonders why Abbas chose to form a narrow-based Cabinet, which has deepened Palestinian divisions. Instead, he should have kept the old government and focused on ending the rift, while pleading his case in international arenas. Last year, he convened the Palestine National Council and elected a new Executive Committee for the PLO, two steps seen as giving him the legal support to disband the PA and derail US and Israeli plans. The big question is will he take that ultimate leap into the unknown ahead of Trump’s plan?
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010