Mohammad Shtayyeh’s resignation and the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority’s government, explained

Mohammad Shtayyeh, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA), nominally the group in charge of Palestinian parts of the West Bank, tendered his resignation and dissolved the PA government Monday. But Shtayyeh’s decision might not hold much weight in the face of an ossified organization, led by 88-year-old President Mahmoud Abbas, facing an uncertain postwar future.

The PA has been the representative of the Palestinian people on the world stage since the 1990s. Abbas took over in 2004, but a combination of corrupt leadership, Israeli aggression and expansionist policies, and the power struggle between the PA and Hamas has diminished the organization’s power — and its legitimacy in the eyes of Palestinians.

The PA remains an important organization internationally, including to the US government. In discussions about the Occupied Palestinian Territories’ status after Israel’s war on Gaza, the US has advocated for the PA to be the governing authority in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem once the months-old war in Gaza is over, putting renewed focus on the organization. But both the US and Arab nations have pushed for change within the PA, arguing that it needs to institute reforms and hold elections that will renew its legitimacy among Palestinians.

Shtayyeh’s resignation appears to be a step toward heeding international pressure. As he told his cabinet Monday, the “next stage and its challenges requires new governmental and political arrangements that take into account the new reality in the Gaza Strip … the urgent need for an inter-Palestinian [national] consensus  …  and the extension of the [PA’s] authority over the entire territory of Palestine,” the Financial Times reported.

Shtayyeh will remain on in a caretaker capacity until a new government is formed, which could take weeks. Abbas is expected to appoint Mohammad Mustafa, a World Bank economist and one of his close compatriots, as prime minister.

But Shtayyeh’s resignation won’t necessarily trigger the changes that both external and internal stakeholders are asking for, diminished executive power among them. And there’s no sense of when Israel’s current war in Gaza will end — or what will happen to the people living there when it does. So while Shtayyeh’s resignation may signal an acknowledgment that Palestinian representation must change, it likely won’t mean any material change in the short term, either for the PA or for the Palestinian people overall.

Who is Shtayyeh in the Palestinian political landscape?

The PA was set up in the 1990s during the Oslo Accords — ostensibly the first stage of negotiations to Palestinian self-rule, though no mechanism for further negotiations or a final outcome was decided and a future Palestinian state was not specified.

At that time, the PA was led by Palestine Liberation Organization Chair Yasser Arafat. It was technically the governing authority over the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem from 1994 until 2006, although Israel occupied Gaza until 2005 and Arafat was under house arrest during the Second Intifada in the early 2000s. But Hamas won a parliamentary majority in the 2006 elections, eventually leading to a civil war between the PA and Hamas, and Hamas taking over Gaza in 2007.

In the intervening years, Abbas’s government has come to be viewed as corrupt and a tool of the Israeli occupation, in part because Israel now controls much of the West Bank, as well as access to PA tax revenue.

As prime minister, Shtayyeh’s role is to convene the PA government — that is, to organize and preside over meetings of the ministers of government agencies. These sessions are supposed to be approved by the Palestinian legislature, but it hasn’t met regularly since 2007, and the mandate of its elected members expired in 2010. That means that Abbas rules by decree in the areas of the West Bank where he actually has governing authority.

Abbas appointed Shtayyeh to his current position in 2019, but he has been part of the PLO structure since 2009, when he was elected to the Fatah Central Committee. Fatah, to which Abbas also belongs, is one of the political parties comprising the PLO, and is the dominant force in the PA.

Shtayyeh and Abbas are known to be close, though Shtayyeh has occasionally flouted the PA party line, exiting political negotiations with the US and Israel in 2014 over expanded Israeli settlements in the West Bank, for example. But for the most part, Shtayyeh is “part of that inner circle, Abbas’s inner circle — which is shrinking,” Khaled Elgindy, director of the Middle East Institute’s program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs, told Vox in an interview. “He’s survived, but it’s a low bar. He operates at the direction of the president, he’s not an independent PM like [Salam] Fayyad was. He’s more of a loyalist.”

It’s possible, then, that Shtayyeh’s resignation comes at Abbas’s behest, so that Abbas can, at least superficially, appear to respond to the demand for change that is now coming from several fronts, both internally and externally.

It’s also notable that the resignation comes ahead of planned negotiations for a unity government between Fatah and Hamas this week in Moscow, as well as an announcement from US President Joe Biden that ceasefire talks between Israel and Hamas are now showing promise.

Given those circumstances, Shtayyeh’s resignation could be read as a gesture to Hamas leadership, but “the resignation of Shtayyeh’s government only makes sense if it comes within the context of national consensus on arrangements for the next phase,” Sami Abu Zuhri, a senior Hamas official, told Reuters Monday.

Shtayyeh’s resignation will change little in the short term

The PA is desperately unpopular among Palestinians, for some of the reasons it and Abbas have been a satisfactory solution for the US and Western countries — mostly that it cooperates with the Israeli state and entrenches the status quo.

Abbas “is someone who never went to weddings or funerals, never shook hands or kissed babies,” Yezid Sayigh, senior fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told Vox in an interview. “And so he basically hid behind his walls, and sought out international interlocutors and hoped that somehow the fact that he demonstrated time and again that he was committed to the Oslo framework and to security coordination with Israel would somehow buy him credit.”

But Abbas’s government has almost no internal legitimacy, and its external legitimacy — particularly among Arab states supportive of a Palestinian state and increasingly within the US and the West — is failing.

Abbas “gets less popular every single day,” Elgindy said. “He’s overestimating his position here; he doesn’t have a strong hand domestically. He’s maybe banking on being the only game in town” for future Palestinian leadership.

Abbas has shown himself unwilling to name a potential successor, to cede executive power to a prime minister, to submit to elections, or to negotiate with Hamas to build a government that might be able to oversee the Occupied Palestinian Territories. All that means that regardless of who is prime minister, political conditions for Palestinians probably won’t change much as long as Abbas is still president and still the chair of the PLO.

“The issue is and has been Abbas, not Shtayyeh,” Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Vox. And even if and when the PA forms a new technocratic government, as the US and Arab countries want, “most bureaucrats will be the same.”

Though US and other external stakeholders hope the dissolution of the PA government will provide the change that they are looking for to govern the Palestinian territories in the future, several major hurdles beyond the PA internal politics remain, not the least of which is Israel’s opposition to PA involvement in a postwar scenario. In the past, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vehemently opposed such a role for the PA; his new postwar game plan didn’t rule out the PA’s participation but didn’t expressly endorse it, either. Arab states that could fund Gaza’s reconstruction — namely Saudi Arabia and the UAE — won’t do so without an explicit path toward future Palestinian statehood.

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