"President [Mahmoud] Abbas has asked me to form a new government and I have accepted," said Rami Hamdallah, the president of Al-Najah University in the West Bank city of Nablus, on Sunday.
In many ways, the announcement was a surprise. After all, Hamdallah is a relatively obscure academic with absolutely no hands-on experience in governing. He was never viewed a frontrunner in the Palestinian prime minister derby -- a horserace that began with the April 13 resignation of reformist premier Salam Fayyad. If anything, Abbas was expected to tap his economic advisor and close ally Mohammed Musafa. And if he didn't make that move, some expected the Palestinian president to name himself.
In the end, Abbas probably realized that tapping Mustafa or himself might cause some uneasiness in Washington. Mustafa's appointment would have looked like an extension of power for Abbas, who is currently four years past the end of his legal presidential term, with no elections plans in the making. And if Abbas had named himself prime minister, the move would have looked like a naked power grab.
But if the appointment of Hamdallah is not an extension of Abbas's presidential power, it is undoubtedly a consolidation. Whereas Fayyad was an independent figure, Hamdallah is a Fatah loyalist, described to me by one former Palestinian advisor as simply a "nice guy who will not make waves." In other words, unlike Fayyad, whose bitter disputes with Abbas over fundamental governance issues led to his departure, Hamdallah should not be expected to lock horns with the president.
Hamdallah has never run a government -- or even a government ministry. A look at his biography reveals that he has held a number of academic positions and that he has penned academic journal articles with titles like, "A contrastive analysis of selected English and Arabic prepositions with pedagogical implications" for Papers and Studies in Contrastive Linguistics.
To be fair, Hamdallah is the president of al-Najah University, the largest university in the West Bank, with 20,000 students. He is also the secretary-general of the Palestinian Central Elections Committee and the chairman of the Palestinian Securities Exchange (PEX). But none of that qualifies him to take the reins of an interim government that has been running on financial fumes in recent years and has been in political crisis since at least 2007, when Hamas overran the Gaza Strip, splitting the Palestinians into two mini-states.
The new premier undoubtedly has some smarts -- he holds a PhD from the University of Lancaster in Britain. But it's hard to explain how he is an improvement over Fayyad, an accomplished economist with practical hands-on experience, and a leader who inspired confidence among the international donor community as a tireless champion of institution building and transparency.