Abbas swears in academic, political newbie as PM

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday swore in a new government headed by a politically inexperienced university dean, in an apparent attempt to consolidate power.

The outgoing prime minister, political independent Salam Fayyad, had often clashed with Abbas but enjoyed the backing of the West because of his successful cleanup of public finances in the West Bank.

Fayyad resigned in April, after months of labor unrest triggered by a deepening financial crisis in the Palestinian Authority, the self-rule government that administers parts of the West Bank.

His six-year term irritated many key figures in Abbas’ Fatah movement who felt one of their own should be prime minister and repeatedly lobbied Abbas to fire Fayyad.

The new prime minister, Rami Hamdallah, is close to Fatah and is expected to carry out Abbas’ instructions. Hamdallah, an English professor, served as dean of An Najah University in the city of Nablus for the past 15 years and as secretary general of the Palestinian Central Elections Commission since 2002.

Hamdallah was given two deputies, including one for economic affairs, apparently to make up for his lack of experience.

The new government is beginning its term at a time of entrenched political malaise in the West Bank. Palestinians last had a general election in 2006, when Fatah rival Hamas won control of parliament. After the parliament election, failed attempts by Hamas and Fatah to share power led to violent clashes that ended with the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007.

After the political split of 2007, Abbas dismissed a Hamas-led government and appointed Fayyad prime minister of a West Bank-based government, while Hamas installed a separate administration in Gaza.

By installing a new government Thursday, Abbas affirmed that prospects of reconciliation with Hamas remain slim. Under a previous unity deal, Abbas was to form an interim government of technocrats from Gaza and the West Bank that would prepare for new elections, but the two sides failed to agree on the details, including how long such a government should be in place before elections are held.

“This government was supposed to be a unity government on the path to reconciliation,” Abbas said during Thursday’s ceremony. “What happened is that we did not yet agree on elections. There has been no positive sign from our brothers in Hamas on agreeing on elections.”

Abbas suggested the government headed by Hamdallah is temporary, saying it’s not clear if it would remain in office for weeks or months.

Ghassan Khatib, a former spokesman for the Fayyad government, said Fayyad used to absorb much of the public anger over economic problems in the past. With Fatah now in charge, “all the public anger is going to be directed against Fatah and the president,” he said.

Political analyst Hani Masri portrayed Hamdallah largely as a figurehead.

“Hamdallah has no political ambitions and no program. He will be carrying out the president’s program and instructions,” Masri said. “President Abbas is focusing the power within his hands.”

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