Palestinian Leader Appoints Longtime Adviser as Prime Minister in Face of Calls for Reform

Palestinian Leader Appoints Longtime Adviser as Prime Minister in Face of Calls for Reform
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a meeting with French President in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Oct. 24, 2023. (Christophe Ena/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

RAMALLAH, West Bank—Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has appointed his longtime economic adviser to be the next prime minister in the face of U.S. pressure to reform the Palestinian Authority as part of Washington’s postwar vision for Gaza.

Mohammad Mustafa, a United States-educated economist and political independent, will head a technocratic government in the Israeli-occupied West Bank that could potentially administer Gaza ahead of eventual statehood. But those plans face major obstacles, including strong opposition from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Israel-Hamas war that is still grinding on with no end in sight.

It’s unclear whether the appointment of a new Cabinet led by a close ally of Mr. Abbas would be sufficient to meet U.S. demands for reform, as the 88-year-old president would remain in overall control.

“The change that the United States of America and the countries of the region want is not necessarily the change that the Palestinian citizen wants,” said Hani al-Masri, a Palestinian political analyst. “People want a real change in politics, not a change in names. … They want elections.”

He said Mr. Mustafa is “a respected and educated man” but will struggle to meet public demands to improve conditions in the occupied West Bank, where Israeli restrictions imposed since the start of the war have caused an economic crisis.

In a statement announcing the appointment, Mr. Abbas asked Mr. Mustafa to put together plans to re-unify the administrations in the West Bank and Gaza, lead reforms in the government, security services, and economy, and fight corruption.

Washington welcomed his appointment but urged Mr. Mustafa to quickly form a Cabinet to implement changes.

“The United States will be looking for this new government to deliver on policies and implementation of credible and far-reaching reforms. A reformed Palestinian Authority is essential to delivering results for the Palestinian people and establishing the conditions for stability in both the West Bank and Gaza,” National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said.

Mr. Mustafa was born in the West Bank town of Tulkarem in 1954 and earned a doctorate in business administration and economics from George Washington University. He has held senior positions at the World Bank and previously served as deputy prime minister and economy minister. He is currently the chairman of the Palestine Investment Fund.

The previous prime minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, resigned along with his government last month, saying different arrangements were needed because of the “new reality in the Gaza Strip.”

The Hamas terrorist group seized power in Gaza from forces loyal to Mr. Abbas in 2007, confining his limited authority to major population centers that account for around 40 percent of the West Bank.

Mr. Abbas is deeply unpopular among Palestinians, many of whom view the Palestinian Authority as little more than a subcontractor of Israel because it cooperates with Israel on security matters. His mandate ended in 2009 but he has refused to hold elections, blaming Israeli restrictions. Hamas won a landslide victory in the last parliamentary elections, in 2006. Although it is considered a terrorist group by Israel and Western countries, Hamas would likely perform well in a Palestinian election.

Mr. Abbas, unlike his Hamas rivals, recognizes Israel, has renounced armed struggle and is committed to a negotiated solution that would create an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Israel has long criticized the Palestinian Authority over payments it makes to the families of Palestinians who have committed acts of terrorism against Israel. The Palestinian Authority defends such payments as a form of social welfare for families harmed by the decades-old conflict.

The dispute has led Israel to suspend some of the taxes and customs duties it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, contributing to years of budget shortfalls. The Palestinian Authority pays the salaries of tens of thousands of teachers, health workers, and other civil servants.

The United States has called for a reformed Palestinian Authority to expand its writ to postwar Gaza ahead of the eventual creation of a Palestinian state in both territories. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ruled out any role for the Palestinian Authority in Gaza.

Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza, and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war.

Israel annexed east Jerusalem and considers the entire city—including major holy sites sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims—to be its undivided capital. Israel has built scores of settlements across the West Bank, where over 500,000 Jewish settlers live in close proximity to some 3 million Palestinians.

Israel withdrew soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005, but along with Egypt imposed a blockade on the territory when Hamas terrorists seized power two years later.

Mr. Netanyahu has vowed to dismantle Hamas and maintain open-ended security control over Gaza in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, in which terrorists attacked southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people and taking another 250 hostages. Israel’s subsequent invasion of Gaza has killed more than 31,000 Palestinians, according to Hamas-controlled Gaza health officials.

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