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An Interview with New Palestinian Authority Prime Minister

Only weeks into his term, new Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh discusses his government’s priorities, the Trump administration’s plan for Mideast peace, and ending the Gaza–West Bank split.

by Zaha Hassan and Mohammad Shtayyeh
Published on April 25, 2019

On April 13, 2019, Mohammad Shtayyeh was sworn in as the new prime minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Shtayyeh has been a close adviser to the president and a long-time member of Fatah’s decisionmaking body, the Fatah Central Committee. He comes to the position after leading the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction, an independent agency of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) created in 1993 to coordinate donor aid to the occupied territories.

Though Shtayyeh’s appointment is popular among Fatah loyalists, others fear that the dissolution of the previous government is confirmation that reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah has been abandoned and that the split between the West Bank and Gaza may become permanent. This, many argue, would make the path to a political solution in the region nearly impossible

Zaha Hassan: Let’s talk about President Donald Trump’s peace plan. The outgoing French ambassador to the United States gave an interview estimating that the plan is likely to be 90 percent bad for Palestinians and maybe 10 percent good, but that the Palestinians should take a look at what is good. How will the PLO and PA government respond to the plan?

Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh: We haven’t seen the text. However, we’ve seen something worse than text—the reality on the ground and the series of actions taken by the current U.S. administration. The relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and the removal of refugee return from the negotiating table jeopardize final status negotiations. The U.S. ambassador saying that no illegal settlements need to be removed while he is conducting meetings in those same illegal settlements is unacceptable. Removing reference to Israeli occupation in the U.S. human rights country reports says a lot about what the U.S. peace plan might look like, as does U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Syrian Golan Heights.

So when I say that the Trump peace plan will be born dead, it is because we see the reality around us and the actions the administration is taking to normalize it. There has not been one single statement from the administration regarding extrajudicial killings of our children, the ongoing expropriation and colonization of our land, or the violations of agreements we’ve signed with Israel—no criticism whatsoever. Instead of building confidence, Washington has been rolling back and destroying the U.S.-Palestinian relationship. How are we to understand the drying up financial aid to the PA and Palestinian hospitals, the cuts in UNRWA [the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] funding, and the closing of the PLO office in Washington and merging of the U.S. consulate serving Palestinians with the U.S. embassy to Israel? Oslo was signed at the White House. Shouldn’t the United States be concerned with upholding commitments made with its support and endorsement? Our decision to cut ties with the U.S. administration is based on this reality—actions speak louder than tweets or public statements made about peace plans.

The administration sees a negotiating table as having two sides: a side for winners and a side for losers. It believes that it must fully defeat Palestinians before bringing them to the negotiating table where the only thing to discuss is the terms of our surrender. It believes that the mistake past U.S. administrations made was in not bringing Palestinians to their knees. This blackmail methodology of peacemaking is wrong. We will not accept the status quo, which is really what this administration is after.

The U.S. administration must understand that it wasn’t our defeat that brought us to negotiations in the past. It was our sincere desire to live at peace with Israel. 

ZH: This week, you met with U.S. senators including Ron Wyden (D-OR), Mitt Romney (R-UT), and Chris Murphy (D-CT). What do you want them and the American public to know? What are you asking of them?

MS: For too long, the U.S.-Palestinian relationship has been contingent on Israel and whether Israel believes we are good partners in negotiations. This linkage has harmed U.S.-Palestinian relations and unfairly colors American perceptions of Palestinians. We want the United States to deal with Palestinians as a people with legitimate political rights, including the right to self-determination and the right to live within a sovereign state with Jerusalem as its capital. This has been the international consensus. With a stroke of president [Harry S.] Truman’s pen, the United States recognized Israel as a state without requiring any political predicate concerning the indigenous people of the land who were forcibly removed to create a Jewish majority in what is today Israel. It is time for the United States to recognize Palestinian rights and to uphold international law. President Trump could do this with a stroke of his pen. It does not require Israeli permission. It is morally and legally the right thing to do so that Palestinians and Israelis are not condemned to a future of perpetual conflict.

ZH: I’d like to discuss the concerns that many have expressed about the dismantling of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and the breakup of the Hamas-Fatah consensus technocrat government. Many argue that these actions and other decrees issued by the president will jeopardize any hope left for Palestinian democracy. How do you respond to concerns that the Palestinian Authority is descending into autocracy?

MS: The Palestinian Authority is functioning in an abnormal political environment. We face unique challenges governing under foreign occupation with the restrictions placed on us and the physical and political separation that exists with Gaza. The dissolution of the PLC came after a parliamentarian filed a petition with the Constitutional Court challenging a reduction in his salary. As you know, the PLC has not functioned since 2007, following the Hamas takeover of Gaza. Despite this, for more than a decade, parliamentarians were receiving salaries. In November, the constitutional court ruled that continuing to pay the salaries was illegal and it recommended that the PLC be dissolved. The PLC has been a dead body. A dead body is entitled to a dignified burial and that is why the president took action. We will reconvene the PLC when we have new elections.

With respect to why the president requested the formation of a new coalition government, the economic and political challenges in the occupied territories require decisive action. The previous Hamas-Fatah technocrat government existed for six years but it wasn’t really operating in Gaza. We have signed so many agreements with Hamas—the Mecca Agreement in 2007, the Cairo Agreement in 2011, Doha in 2012, Cairo again in 2012, and the Shati Agreement. None of the governments have been allowed to operate in Gaza. Instead, Hamas has maintained its own shadow government.

Before forming the new government, I held many consultations with all PLO political factions. Six accepted my invitation to join the government. Two other factions, the Popular Front and the Democratic Front, decided not to, though they support my premiership. They have indicated that they may join in the future after there is full reconciliation with Hamas.

ZH: Which PLO parties are in the coalition government? And why are women so poorly represented—three out of the twenty-two ministers—though many of the political parties require that a specified percentage of women be in the leadership?

MS: The cabinet is an “all Palestine cabinet.” There are six PLO political factions represented: Fatah, the People’s Party, Fida, the National Struggle for Palestine, the Arab Liberation Front, and the Arab Palestine Liberation Front. The Popular Front has never been a part of any PA government because it rejects the Oslo process and framework. The Democratic Front participated once in a PA government but has chosen not to in the current one. Hamas was not invited to be a part of the coalition because there must be an end of the split first.

I agree that there are not enough women represented. I had asked five women to join but only three accepted. Is five enough? No, it isn’t. I am hopeful elections will remedy this.

ZH: There are seven agenda items included in your mandate. Which ones are most critical to you?

MS: For sure, ending the Gaza–West Bank split is a national priority. That is why the president made it the first item in the mandate he gave me. Jerusalem is the heart of the Palestinian struggle, but Gaza has proven to be its soul. The PLO first got its legs there. The popular uprising in 1987 began in Gaza and the mass mobilization—the Great March of Return, now entering its second year—is a product of Palestinian resistance in Gaza. There is no Palestine without Gaza.

Though I’m not involved in the political negotiations with Hamas, my cabinet will work on preparations for bringing the civil service back under one umbrella, harmonizing laws in the West Bank and Gaza, and standardizing the provision of services across Palestine.

Of course, the other item of critical importance in my mandate involves confronting the economic challenges Palestinians are facing. We need a paradigm shift on economic development in Palestine. The principle areas of economic activity in Palestine are agriculture, tourism, industry and tech, and finance and public administration. Development has not been even across Gaza and the West Bank. Most development has been focused on Ramallah and Al Bireh.

The government will support particular areas of specialization in each of the regions in Palestine so that they can grow strategically into development clusters. For example, the Jenin area will be an agricultural cluster with the communities there focused on the cultivation of the land. The Ministry of Agriculture will provide seedlings, the Ministry of Public Works [will provide] the machinery, and we will bring volunteers as needed from the schools and universities who need to fulfill their community service requirements to help with the planting and harvesting. In this way, we support economic development, preserve and protect the land for the people, and show our resiliency and steadfastness. We will do similar schemes in the Nablus area to create an industrial cluster, and in the Bethlehem area to support tourism, etc.

Education is also very important to me. I want to change the way we learn in Palestine so that we move from “ta3leem to ta3alum”—from rote learning to critical thinking and problem-solving. Another priority is expanding opportunities for vocational education that can lead to self-employment to deal with the high unemployment rate in Palestine. Rather than a reliance on cash handouts, the government will encourage and provide support for individual initiatives and family-based production. In addition, I have established a new Ministry of Entrepreneurship and Empowerment to support SME [small and medium-sized enterprises] development.

ZH: Where does Jerusalem fit into your plans for economic development given that the PA is not allowed to function there? How do you intend to support Palestinian Jerusalemites who are facing mass evictions today?

MS: Of course, Jerusalem is integral to Palestine. We will support steadfastness in the city. One way to do this is to enhance the capacity of the Jerusalem area as a medical cluster for Palestinians.

ZH: But how can you do this when the Israeli government is shutting down overt signs of the Palestinian presence in the city, even going so far as to disband a Palestinian soccer tournament last week?

MS: Jerusalem is more than just the city; it is the people. We will assist them where and when we can. We will support challenges to the restrictions placed on them. One of the biggest problems Palestinian Jerusalemites face besides the building restrictions and home evictions relates to how expensive it is to build or to obtain permits for building. The PA government can help by providing low-cost loans and by supporting housing initiatives. Rehabilitating existing housing in the Old City to make units livable is also something we have capacity to do and have been doing.

ZH: How can the government provide financial support for the initiatives you’ve talked about when it is so cash-strapped? How might your paradigm shift impact economic support provided by a donor community that has been focused for twenty-five years on larger-scale state-building projects?

MS: Most of the things I have described are doable with minimal cost. We will have to redirect resources and rely on community support no doubt. As for the donors, we will be consulting with them within the various donor mechanisms and platforms. We would like them to be our partners in this. There should be no mistake, however: the political framework we are operating in remains two states. Our development plans are aimed at moving away from colonial dependency and towards self-sufficiency and independence—that is the change we are seeking. This is an important break from the way donor aid functioned in the past.

ZH: I want to go back to Hamas-Fatah reconciliation and the prospects for new elections. Hamas and Israel have an agreement that seems to be holding. Reports about the Trump peace plan indicate it will be heavily focused on economic development in Gaza. This seems to support the idea that Gaza is being treated as a separate entity from the West Bank. How will this impact reconciliation and elections?

MS: The territorial unit where Palestinian elections must take place is the West Bank including East Jerusalem and Gaza. We need an agreement with Hamas to hold elections in Gaza. Thus far, the PA’s model for reconciliation is not acceptable to Hamas and Hamas’s model has not been acceptable to the PA. Maybe we will have to hold a referendum to let the people decide. We also cannot hold elections in Jerusalem without Israeli agreement. I have been in contact with European governments asking them to assist us with this. Israel is obligated under the Oslo Interim Agreement to allow Palestinian elections in East Jerusalem. We’ve had an established practice of doing so in 1996, in 2005, and in 2006.

Democracy is embryonic in Palestine. We must revitalize it now and the elections are critical to this.

ZH: What is the PA demanding in an agreement to hold elections with Hamas?

MS: When Hamas won elections in 2006, it wanted to be a government without respecting previous agreements. If we go to elections, the political parties that will participate must agree to respect prior agreements signed by the PLO and Israel. Moreover, the international community must respect the outcome of our democratic process so we won’t fall into the trap of 2006.

ZH: Do you think Hamas will go along with that?

MS: Hamas is between a hammer and an anvil right now. They want to be a resistance movement at the same time as a government. It must learn from the past.