Resignation of Mahmoud Abbas’ prime minister opens door for the Palestinian Authority to return to Gaza

The announcement paves the way for the formation of a government of technocrats, along the lines of reforms that the United States envisages for the post-war future of the enclave

Mahmoud Abbas
Antony Blinken and Mahmoud Abbas at the headquarters of the Palestinian National Authority in Ramallah, on February 7.ALAA BADARNEH / POOL (EFE)
Antonio Pita

Since the war in Gaza began last October, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mohamed Shtayyeh, who resigned on Monday, has responded with a metaphor when asked about the possibility of the PA taking back control of Gaza once Israel has finished with Hamas, which has ruled the coastal enclave alone since 2007. Shtayyeh stated that there will be no return to Gaza on the part of the PA without a political solution for the West bank, and that the authority would not assume control of the Gaza Strip “aboard an F-16 or an Israeli tank.” There is little prospect of such a scenario, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that he does not want the PA managing the rubble of Gaza when the conflict is over. But Shtayye’s resignation is the most significant step in the four and a half months of fighting toward the post-war designs of the United States.

The decision — accepted by the PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, who has asked him to remain in office as interim prime minister — opens the door to the “day after” he desires and for which Washington is pressing: that a reformed PA with new faces regains the international legitimacy needed to handle day-to-day business. “Revitalized,” as U.S. President Joe Biden has said.

The announcement paves the way for the formation of a government of technocrats to replace the present one: sclerotized, discredited, and structured by Fatah, the faction led by Abbas. “It is the most substantial act of the implementation of the day after in Gaza, and it has the tacit consent of Hamas,” says Tahani Mustafa, Palestine analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank, by telephone. Mustafa notes that Hamas “has been trying for years to rid itself of governing Gaza,” a task that has worn it out internally and has failed to reverse “its status as an international pariah.” Hamas has now raised its “bet” on unity, Mustafa adds, even at the price of not having representation in the new administration, something that would put a brake on the West.

Mohammed Mustafa has been strongly positioned for weeks to take over as the new prime minister of the PA. He is, on the one hand, the kind of choice of which Washington will approve. Chairman of the board of the Palestine Investment Fund, he is a U.S.-trained economist who has held important positions in the World Bank and maintains contact with official representatives in Washington. On the other, he is an acceptable figure for Hamas. Although he is considered close to Abbas, he was deputy prime minister and head of the economy in the brief unity government formed in 2014 between the two factions and placed in charge of the reconstruction of Gaza after the Israeli offensive of that year, the most destructive until the current war broke out.

“Inter-Palestinian consensus”

Shtayye himself made the path clear in his speech on Monday: “The next stage and its challenges require new governmental and political arrangements that take into account the new reality in the Gaza Strip, the national unity talks, and the urgent need for an inter-Palestinian consensus.” He added that “the extension of the sovereignty of the Palestinian National Authority over the entire land, Palestine,” would be required.

That panorama clashes with the post-conflict plan presented last week by Netanyahu. This consists of maintaining “freedom of action” for Israel’s military across a demilitarized Gaza and leaving “as much as possible civilian management and responsibility for law and order” in the hands of local officials who would “not be identified with countries or entities that support terrorism and will not receive payment from them.” That is to say, representatives who are willing to collaborate with the Israeli military authorities and have no connection with Hamas or the PA. Israeli TV Channel 12 reported last week on an army pilot project in the Zeitoun neighborhood of the Gazan capital to establish a sort of local government. Military commanders met with communal leaders to try to convince them to govern residents who have not fled to the south. Netanyahu’s plan also makes reconstruction conditional on the start of “a process of deradicalization” of the population and rejects the creation of a Palestinian state.

It also goes against the mood of Israeli public opinion. Only 11% support the PA’s return to Gaza, according to a poll released last December by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Eighteen percent want annexation, 22% want military control, 18% want the deployment of an international force in the territory and 23% would prefer a coalition of “moderate Arab states” to do so.

Reform of the PLO

The reform of the PA runs parallel to another, that of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which has been talked about for years but only now seems to be being taken seriously. The PLO is internationally recognized as the official representative of the Palestinian people but it does not include the winner of the last elections — Hamas — nor other factions such as Islamic Jihad, so it has become obsolete. All the Palestinian factions have been invited to Moscow at the end of the month. According to the Arabic-language daily Asharq Al Awsat, two main issues will be on the table: the formation of a technocratic government and the inclusion of Hamas and Islamic Jihad within the PLO.

The discrediting of the PA, and specifically of Abbas, is such that the option being pushed by Washington is deeply unpopular. According to a poll published in December by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 60% of respondents would like Hamas to remain in charge of Gaza after the war; 16% favor a national unity government without Abbas; 7%, the PA in its current composition, and 3% one or more Arab countries. Only 3% chose the formula that is taking shape: a unity administration with Abbas as president.

Tahani Mustafa foresees two more steps: a reform of the Basic Law (the equivalent of a constitution) and the appointment of a vice-president. Hussein al-Sheikh, Abbas’ right-hand man, is a strong contender. He has risen meteorically since the Covid-related death of veteran chief negotiator Saeb Erekat in 2020 and is secretary-general and head of the PLO’s negotiating department. But only 3% of Palestinians would want him as the next leader, according to a 2023 poll. Al-Sheikh was one of the two PA leaders who traveled to Amman on Sunday to prepare for Abbas’ meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, another U.S. ally pushing for reform of the PA to take back control of Gaza.

The process is somewhat reminiscent of that experienced by former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat during the Second Intifada (2000-2005). Israel and then-U.S. President George W. Bush accused him of “supporting terrorism” and tried to force him out. They did not succeed, but they did push him to appoint a prime minister: Abbas. The idea now is to create a vice-presidency to share the power that an increasingly isolated and authoritarian Abbas holds, and to prepare his succession: the Palestinian president is 88 years old, has heart problems, and has been in power for 19 years without going to the polls.

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