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New Palestinian PM Rami Hamdallah: Resources/Background

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Last week Palestinian President Abbas announced his choice for his new Prime Minister: Rami Hamdallah, presently the President of An-Najah University, in Nablus. Hamdallah is not a well-known figure outside of the West Bank, having played little if any public role in Palestinian politics until now. With that in mind, we offer the following resources for those seeking more information about this new player on the Palestinian Authority political scene, as well as for those looking for insight into why Hamdallah might have been chosen and what his selection could mean for the future of the PA.

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From the Hebrew-language press (translations by Israel News Today)

Navigating with a Conscience
by Smadar Peri, Yedioth Ahronoth, June 7

As soon as he was appointed as the new Palestinian prime minister on Sunday nigh;people already started to eulogize Dr. Rami Hamdallah. Throughout the West Bank, in the Gaza Strip and in Israel as well, assessments are being heard that he has no chance of surviving in his post for a lengthy period of time, and certainly no chance of succeeding. "They took a good guy, without experience, just so he wouldn't make trouble for Abu Mazen," the cynics say.

"On the face of it, he doesn't have much of a chance,"; agrees Mohammed Diab, a businessman from Hebron, and presents a long and difficult list of obstacles that faces Hamdallah. "The first and second places on the list of obstacles are occupied by Dr. Mohammed Mustafa, chairman of the Palestine Investment Fund, and Ziad Abu Amr, the former foreign minister in the Fatah-Hamas government; Abu Mazen has made it clear that he is determined to appoint his two loyalists as deputy prime ministers. Hamdallah will have to decide whether he will let them work over his head. He will also have to decide whether he will choose to be a yes-man of Abu Mazen or create a work plan for himself and display independence as did his predecessor, Salam Fayyad."

Hamdallah's associates say that he is already working around the clock, and all indications show that he has no intention of failing. Israeli officials are mainly familiar with him from the paperwork. "Moderate and pragmatic," people give me a diplomatic response. "After his great success in the academic world, what does he need this millstone for?"

Behind the scenes of the appointment, the fingerprints of US Secretary of State John Kerry are evident. "After Fayyad announced that he was going home," said a senior Palestinian source to Ma'ariv, "Kerry tried to convince him to stay. But the more he pressed, the more adamant Fayyad's refusal became. Kerry continued to pressure him to remain in his post at least until the renewal of negotiations with Israel was announced, but Fayyad insisting on packing his bags. It is no secret that his relationship with Abu Mazen had run aground, and the Palestinian street was threatening to come out against his economic plans, and mainly against the plan to raise prices and taxes."

At this stage, two names arose of figures recommended for the post of prime minister: the chairman of the Palestine Investment Fund, Dr. Mohammed Mustafa, and President of An-Najah University Dr. Hamdallah. Abu Mazen wanted his confidant, Dr. Mustafa, but Kerry explained to Abu Mazen that "it looks bad," said that it would be preferable to appoint Hamdallah, and updated Jerusalem. The European Union and the donor states also insisted on "the professor,"as he is known in the West Bank. Hamdallah, for his part, hesitated and squirmed until consenting to accept the post. When he was appointed this week, Kerry was the first to welcome his appointment. The secretary of state said: he faces many challenges, which are also important moments of opportunity. I hope for extensive cooperation with him so as to reach peace in the Middle East.

Certain elements in the West Bank were not enthusiastic about the American congratulations. "I am not certain that public congratulations by a politician from the United States will help Hamdallah in his first steps," said a senior Palestinian source. "It should be remembered that Fayyad, with all his integrity, his qualifications and his modesty, was marked on the Palestinian street as a darling of the White House, and this certainly didn't contribute to his popularity. The Palestinian street found it difficult to accept a prime minister who answered his own phone calls, traveled to meetings by taxi, declared war on corruption-- and in the same breath raised the price of gasoline and raised taxes. People slammed him for being an American puppet and complained that Washington was dictating to him economic plans that were unsuitable for the reality in the territories."

"I'm not afraid of him," said veteran journalist Elias Zananiri, "I am mainly afraid for him. He should [be careful] not to crash in the difficult task he has undertaken, walking between the raindrops without getting wet and taking care that people do not trip him up. After all, we have already learned from you how to make politicians miserable, without giving them even 100 days of grace. Now people are examining Hamdallah from all directions: If it becomes clear that he is Mr. Clean, that he was not involved in corruption, they will say that he is weak and naive; if anyone can find a blemish on him---and I believe that the chances of this are very slim---they will attack him with bared claws and with huge headlines, as is done to Israeli politicians. The problem is that if he fails or flees from his post, it will be at the expense of the Palestinian citizen, whose life is not simple in any case.

Take money, and don't return it

Bashar al-Masri, developer of the Palestinian city Rawabi, knows Dr. Hamdallah well from their regular meetings on the board of An-Najah University in Nablus. For 15 years Hamdallah served as president of the university and turned it into a success story: it is now the largest academic campus in the West Bank, with 20,000 students, spacious grounds, modern equipment and a staff of 400 lecturers. Beyond the institution's professional achievements, Hamdallah succeeded in returning the calm to the campus; in the previous decade, six Hamas wanted men hid there, and female students who attended the university volunteered to carry out suicide bombing attacks against Israeli targets.

"Don't underestimate Hamdallah," al-Masri recommends. "He's quiet, polite and well-mannered, but he is a person who knows how to get things done. He won't let the ministers and officials weary him with long meetings. From my lengthy acquaintance with him I know that he is meticulous---he always comes to meetings prepared, and knows in advance exactly what he wants to achieve."

Until he forms the new government, Hamdallah is shunning the media. "He is actually very fond of microphones," a colleague from the university relates. "Just bring a film crew, and he devotes himself to them. He always has concrete messages and headlines, just like the media like."

The headline he gave to the media on Monday morning, the day after his appointment, was brief and concise. "I will work to build the institutions of the Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital," he recited the text that was expected of him. "But I have not come to destroy what was built in the past years," he went on, giving respect to his predecessor Fayyad, who left him a complicated legacy: on one hand he built the institutions of the Palestinian state and prepared an economic infrastructure; on the other hand, due to the diplomatic deadlock and the financial distress in the territories, the debt of the PA institutions has swollen to over 4 billion, and we have not even mentioned the delaying of salaries for thousands of workers.

In the coming two weeks, after he appoints a new finance minister and outlines the division of labor between himself and his deputy, Mohammed Mustafa, Hamdallah will face a first critical question: how to market the rise in food prices in advance of Ramadan, a month when the masses make a rush for the grocery stores. "If the prices soar," warns Munis Barhoum, owner of a grocery store in Ramallah, "the masses will fill the streets with angry demonstrations. Hamdallah has already said: 'I don't have any magic formulas.'"

But fundraising skills are something that he does have. In his 15 years as president of the university, he succeeded in collecting donations on a scale of USD 300 million. Most of the donors are Palestinian expatriates who succeeded abroad and volunteered to transfer "conscience money" as compensation for their refusal to return to live in the territories or invest in factories in the West Bank. "We have no natural resources, we have no oil, it's difficult for us to export because of the limitations of the occupation," Hamdallah explained on his fundraising trips. "Our only wealth is expressed in the minds of our young people, their skills and their will to learn and advance. We must help them."

A senior university official said this week that Hamdallah had funded from his own pocket undergraduate studies for several students from poor families in the West Bank. "When a cleaning worker came up to him at the university, and said that his low salary, USD 150, was used up by the first week of the month, and he had no food to bring home---Hamdallah put his hand in his pocket, opened his wallet and stuffed a handful of bills in his hand. 'Take this,' he said to the worker, 'and never return it.'"

The three children were killed

He was born 55 years ago to a well-off family from the village Anabta in the Tulkarm district. His father was the deputy mayor, and his uncle a Jordanian member of Parliament. His academic studies began at the department of English literature and linguistics at the university in Amman, continued with a doctorate in London and advanced to managerial positions at the humanities faculty at An-Najah University.

In 2000 his wife was driving on the highway between Nablus and Ramallah. Their three children were in the car---11-year old twin girls and a 9-year old boy. For an unclear reason, the car crashed into an Israeli truck that was driving opposite it, and the three children were killed. "It was terrible," recalls businessman Mustafa al-Biri from Tulkarm. "Thousands came to him to express condolences. We tried to comfort him; we said that fate had decided to strike his family and that he should accept Allah's will and continue to live. Hamdallah shook the tens of thousands of hands with gritted teeth."

Even a decade after the accident, people continued to call him "Abu Walid" after the young son who was killed. This week, prior to his transition to the Prime Minister's Bureau, Munib al-Masri already gave him the demanding nickname a-Damir, the conscience. "I gave him this name because he truly cares for the Palestinian people," al-Masri explains. "On the Israeli side too, people know that Hamdallah is a moderate person, who has come to work and do the right thing. In addition, he has the human aspect of a person who knows his people well. He is not condescending, he knows what people want and what he wishes to attain for them."

"His chances of success are close to zero," warns one of his senior colleagues at the university. "He has no managerial experience outside the campus. He has also assumed a post that is without powers. Abu Mazen will breathe down his neck by means of the deputies he assigned to him and will pull the strings, and Israel is liable to sabotage the economic development plans. The Hamas leadership in Gaza has already expressed its dissatisfaction, and these are just the first signs of anger at his appointment. It's important to remember that he has a way out: If he gets fed up he can stick to his letter of appointment as prime minister of a transition government, and retire in three months."

Attorney Gilead Sher, who negotiated with the Palestinians during the term of the Barak government and currently heads the Blue and White Future movement, which works towards a two-state solution, believes that Hamdallah can invest his new post with important content, despite the limitations. "Since his powers and his tasks focus on economic issues, he can play an important role in building the economic infrastructure in the West Bank," Sher says. "Still, there are many questions that remain open, for example, how much power he will have, how long a rope will Abu Mazen give him, which economic solutions will he bring, and won't Hamas interfere with his work."

The Movement of Enlightenment
By Assaf Gabor, Ma'ariv, June 4

A month and a half after news broke that Salam Fayyad had resigned from his position as Palestinian Prime Minister, Rami Hamdallah, aged 54, the president of An-Najah University in Nablus, has received the mandate to from a new government from PA Chairman Abu Mazen.

Hamdallah is considered to be a close associate of Abu Mazen; he often attends the chairman's closed meetings and is said to have occasionally even influenced his decisions pertaining to internal Palestinian affairs. Hamdallah is also considered to be an associate of the Palestinian billionaire Munib al-Masri, a resident of Nablus, who influenced Abu Mazen's decision to appoint him as prime minister.

In addition to Hamdallah's appointment, the PA also reached a decision to appoint him two deputies: Mohammad Mustafa and Ziad Abu Amr. Mustafa, who had been one of the candidates for prime minister, is currently the chairman of a Palestinian Investment Fund, while Abu Amr is considered to enjoy the support of Hamas and even served as foreign minister in the Hamas-Fatah government. His appointment is expected to be perceived by Hamas in Gaza as a sign that Abu Mazen has not abandoned the idea of a reconciliation agreement between the sides.

Hamdallah, for his part, thanked Abu Mazen for the appointment, which, as he said, comes at a particularly delicate moment for the Palestinians. The new prime minister voiced his intention to work energetically to create freedom and independence for the Palestinian people, toward the creation of an independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The incoming prime minister is expected to adopt policies similar to the ones that had been in place in the past insofar as pertains to the Palestinian Authority's relations with Israel, with an emphasis on security cooperation. The PA Chairman coordinated his appointment with European and American officials, who supported Hamdallah's pro-Western stances.

US Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed the decision, and said that the parties faced many challenges, which, at the same time, also present important opportunities. Kerry said he hoped for broad cooperation with the prime minister-elect to achieve peace in the Middle East.

"The new prime minister is assuming a position that is devoid of all powers, the primary aim being the advancement of a policy in which PA Chairman Abu Mazen is responsible for all foreign policy decisions. He is the one who pulls the strings. It is in the interests of the United States and Israel that the prime minister be merely a rubber stamp in Abu Mazen's hands," explained Khaled Damiri, a political analyst who was not surprised by the United States' reaction.

Professor Rami Hamdallah has served as the president of An-Najah University since 1998. He holds a PhD in linguistics and is considered an academic and a technocrat, who lacks political experience and lives within the world of academia in the fullest possible sense.

Damiri said that the very decision to appoint someone who is considered to be a political novice is significant. "Hamdallah has ties to Fatah but he is, first and foremost, an academic. He doesn't know much about politics, and certainly won't make problems for senior officials like the previous prime minister did."

Hamdallah is considered an educated, Western-oriented and respectable man, but also someone relatively weak who will have trouble withstanding pressure from Fatah officials. "Salam Fayyad bought himself a lot of political enemies because, among other reasons, he refrained from appointing senior Fatah officials to ministerial posts and he used to hold the political and economic reins. His behavior annoyed a lot of people who now hope to find favor in Hamdallah's eyes and to get the jobs that they've been waiting for for a long time," said Damiri.

[...]

Hamdallah's lack of political affiliation has given rise to the impression that PA Chairman Abu Mazen has not abandoned hope of reaching a reconciliation agreement with Hamas. Hamas's fierce opposition to Salam Fayyad's continued tenure as prime minister has now been acceded to by Abu Mazen by appointing a man who, although essentially from Fatah, is expected to be receptive to proposals for resolving the rift.

But at the moment, hopes for a reconciliation with Hamas have been put on hold, after Hamas sharply condemned the new appointment. Hamas Spokesman in the Gaza Strip Fawzi Barhoum, called the government about to be formed by Hamdallah "illegal and illegitimate, since he won't be sworn in by the Palestinian Parliament, which has been inactive since the rift between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 2007."

"This is a facsimile copy of previous governments that were announced by Abu Mazen and it is an example [i.e. it demonstrates] that he is not truly interested in resolving the inner Palestinian problem and in adopting the Cairo agreement that was reached between Hamas and Fatah," said Barhoum, who called for a national unity government to be formed.

In addition the problematic relations with Hamas, the incoming prime minister will have to contend with an equally formidable domestic problem. The state of the Palestinian economy is very dire, and the tax increase decided on by the outgoing prime minister has only served to rekindle popular anger.

Hamdallah said he was afraid that in the coming months his government would have to face growing public protest around economic issues: unpaid salaries for PA officials, the rise in VAT and electricity rates. They all worry him. He said he hoped that Israel would not withhold money earmarked for the PA so as not to trip him up so early in his tenure.

The new Palestinian government is expected to govern for three months, after which, in the event that a reconciliation agreement is reached with Hamas, a government under the leadership of Abu Mazen will be formed, and dates set for general elections for the PA presidency and parliament. In the event that no reconciliation agreement is reached, this government is expected to continue to serve for a longer time. [...]

Fayyad's government was supposed to have been dissolved on June 2 and, from Abu Mazen's point of view, he adhered to the formal timetable by appointing Hamdallah. In tandem with Hamdallah's appointment, it was announced that most of the ministers currently serving in the cabinet would retain the positions, except for a few isolated cases.

From Academia to the Palestinian Leadership
By Elior Levy, Yediot Ahronoth, June 3

He speaks English, holds a doctorate in linguistics from the University of Manchester, his name is Rami Hamdallah, 55--and yesterday PA Chairman Abu Mazen announced his appointment to the post of the new Palestinian prime minister.

Hamdallah currently serves as president of An-Najah University in Nablus. He will be replacing Salam Fayyad, who resigned his post about a month ago. The announcement of his appointment was issued at the end of a meeting with Abu Mazen at the mukataa in Ramallah.

The fact that Abu Mazen decided not to appoint to this post as candidate from Fatah--and there were such candidates--is a signal to Hamas that the PA chairman seeks reconciliation, in spite of the fact that no significant breakthrough was achieved between the sides in the past months. A moment after the appointment, Abu Mazen took pains to emphasize that he wished to uphold the reconciliation agreements signed with Hamas in Cairo and Doha, and said that he would make sure to complete them in keeping with the agreed-upon timetable. Hamas figures, however, attacked the appointment. Sources in Hamas said that this was a "twin of Fayyad." Sami Abu Zuhri, the Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said that the new government in Ramallah did not represent the Palestinian people. "This is an illegal government because it does not draw its legality from the Palestinian Legislative Council," Abu Zuhri said.

Hamdallah expressed thanks for the confidence placed in him, and said that he would make every effort to ensure the wellbeing of the Palestinian people. He also made it clear that he would support any peace plan presented by Abu Mazen. Hamdallah is expected to leave in their posts most of the Palestinian ministers serving in the current government.

The new Palestinian prime minister is considered to be a pragmatic figure in the ranks of the Palestinian elite that is acceptable to the West. He was born in the village Anabta near Tulkarm, speaks fluent English, and has a Ph.D. in applied linguistics from the University of Manchester. Hamdallah currently serves as president of An-Najah University in Nablus. Previously he held senior posts in the university, and served as chairman of the English department and in other capacities. He is also a board member of the Palestinian-European Academic Cooperation in Education (PEACE) program. In addition, he serves as secretary general of the Palestinian Central Elections Committee.

Among his main tasks will be coping with a deep economic crisis in the Palestinian Authority and with large deficits.