Palestinian PM’s Star Rising amid Coronavirus Emergency
Mohammad Shtayyeh (The Media Line)

Palestinian PM’s Star Rising amid Coronavirus Emergency

Mohammed Shtayyeh’s handling of crisis fuels talk that he could become PA president

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, who has held office for slightly more than a year, is increasingly regarded as a possible replacement for PA President Mahmoud Abbas because of his management of the COVID-19 outbreak on the West Bank.

In the 13 months that Shtayyeh has occupied the prime minister’s office on Emile Habibi Square in the upscale Ramallah neighborhood of Masyoun, he has exhibited a new governing style that is in stark contrast to that of his predecessor, Rami Hamdallah. He walks to his office. He has fewer guards. He seems to be more at ease with the public.

The 62-year-old Shtayyeh is a veteran politician and a member of the ruling Fatah party. (Hamdallah and the prime minister before him, Salam Fayyad, were both ostensibly independent.) He has extensive experience in economics and holds a PhD in economic development.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the Palestinian territories in early March, Shtayyeh has taken a hands-on approach in the campaign against coronavirus. He has been seen in the streets meeting with people and has gone out at night on unannounced visits to a bakery, a coffee shop and a supermarket to check how people are coping.

Nour Odeh, a Palestinian political analyst in the West Bank, told The Media Line that the prime minister was the exact opposite of Hamdallah, who was considered stiff and out of touch.

“Dr. Shtayyeh has a long history of positive engagement with civil society and academia. He’s very conscientious about the need to connect with the public and re-establish trust by being more forthright about what is going on and how things are managed,” she said.

The prime minister participates in daily COVID-19 updates led by government spokesman Ibrahim Melhem, providing in-depth briefings about official measures and fielding questions.

Hasan Awwad, a Middle East expert at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, told The Media Line that these news conferences had burnished Shtayyeh’s image as a leader.

“His management of the crisis has definitely made him a star and raised his status, giving him wide public support,” Awwad said.

The prime minister announced on Monday that the Palestinian territories had about 450 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and two deaths, strikingly low figures compared to most places in the world.

Abdul Sattar Kassem, a former political science professor at An-Najah University in the West Bank, told The Media Line he was not impressed by Shtayyeh’s handling of the crisis.

“Where’s the creativity in what he did?” Kassem asked. “He took the same measures that were taken by America, China, Belgium, Chad, etc… There is no kind of creativity, but the factional [Fatah] media machine amplifies the achievements. This is a matter of propaganda, and nothing more.”

Kassem adds that Shtayyeh is no different from previous prime ministers.

“The basic measure of the performance of any government is the extent of its impact on social, humanitarian and economic conditions,” he stated. “Do you see any change in the general situation of people in the West Bank? Any new program, even political?”

For many Palestinians, however, Shtayyeh is a breath of fresh air. A recent poll conducted in the West Bank found that 96% of the respondents trusted his government’s handling of the crisis.

He is seen by many as the top candidate to succeed Abbas, who is 84, has been in power since 2005 and is in frail health. The president has been keeping a low profile and has been seen only twice since pandemic started.

“It’s clear that the people are satisfied with his handling of the crisis,” Awwad said about Shtayyeh. “He has been transparent with the media, solidifying his position as a possible successor to Abbas.”

When he took office, Shtayyeh’s strategy was to gradually disengage the Palestinian economy from that of Israel and to find new markets for Palestinian products. People were skeptical, and despite his success in handling the pandemic, the Palestinian economy is now on the verge of collapse.

Thousands of Palestinians are no longer working. The financially struggling government will pay only 60% of its employees’ salaries this month, Shtayyeh himself announced at a recent news conference. In addition, the internal division between Fatah and Hamas, the Islamist ruler of the Gaza Strip, remains deep.

Odeh, the political analyst, served as a spokeswoman for the Palestinian government under Fayyad. She says Shtayyeh has indeed faced difficult problems since taking office, but that does not make him a shoo-in as president.

“One can assess this government by how it has been able to manage and survive these challenges so far,” she said. “It’s been one thing after another. They haven’t had a break. It’s difficult to judge what they would do during prosperous times…. But this is a very critical public. And this doesn’t mean his popularity will extend to everything. It could fluctuate very sharply and very quickly.”

Odeh adds that it is not the time to talk about who will replace Abbas.

“It’s too early to talk about something like that,” she said. “Second, I don’t know what Dr. Shtayyeh’s aspirations are. He’s very careful about that.”

Besides, the matter of succession is not a simple matter.

“The calculus for something like this is far more complicated,” Odeh stated. “It’s not about popularity. It’s not just about good performance in the past few months.”

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