Palestine's Nothing Man

The new prime minister in Ramallah is a political novice -- and that's exactly why President Mahmoud Abbas chose him.

"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.

The truth is, Abbas wants a weak premier. And he may make another move to weaken Hamdallah further. A former Palestinian official tells me that Ramallah is abuzz with rumors that Mustafa may be appointed deputy prime minister. Should this occur, Hamdallah could effectively be taking orders from his number two. 

The real bad news here, then, is not the appointment of a benign academic with no political power base or any realistic chance of advancing in the Palestinian political system. Rather, it is the weakening of the institution of prime minister.

Ironically, it was Abbas who served as the first Palestinian prime minister. The position was essentially created in 2003 by the West to dilute the ironclad and centralized power of the presidency, then held by Yasir Arafat. With the peace process in a state of gridlock and allegations of corruption mounting, one New York Times editorial declared that the appointment of a new prime minister was "the most important reason there is renewed hope for progress in the Middle East." In the ensuing power struggle, however, it didn't take long for Arafat to force Abbas's resignation. But when Abbas became president in January 2005, his early behavior suggested that he wished to maintain a political balance his predecessor had eschewed. 

Eight years later, however, Abbas has become the quintessential Middle East strongman. From the restriction of press freedoms to the quashing of political rivals, Abbas looks increasingly like a jacket-and-tie version of Arafat.

Sure, West Bankers sporadically voice their displeasure with the political status quo, notably on Facebook and other social media outlets. But between widespread skepticism over U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's new peace initiative, the failure of a six decades-old struggle to gain independence from the Israelis, and the inability to iron out a reconciliation agreement with Hamas, the ossified Palestinian political system is just one challenge among many. 

As one local journalist tells me, rather than debating the qualifications of their new prime minister, many Palestinians appear indifferent, adding that one Ramallah resident quipped, "the big question is who will be Al-Najah's [next] president."



Xi's Not Ready

Why Obama should skip the shirt-sleeves summit with China's new leader.

Later this week, President Obama will meet with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at the exclusive Sunnylands estate in California. The two administrations are pitching it as a 'shirt-sleeves' summit,' to emphasize that it won't be the typical, formalized, agenda-driven meeting. Instead, the ambience will supposedly allow for a greater degree of openness to "constructively manage" the two sides' differences, as the White House press office delicately puts it. Unlike the stuffy, robotic former Chinese president Hu Jintao, Xi is seen as a more dynamic and engaging. Indeed, Xi's 2012 visit to the United States, before he became China's paramount leader, consciously tried to portray him as a regular guy, including a nostalgic return to a farm in Iowa he once briefly visited nearly three decades ago. Believing in Obama's informal touch, the White House is betting that personalizing the relationship between the two leaders could help the two sides break through distrust, and revitalize stagnant policy discussions.

But summits like this one should be reserved for friends and allies with whom the United States has close working relationships. George Bush's 2006 Graceland meeting with Junichiro Koizumi, for example, rewarded the then Japanese prime minister's path-breaking support for Bush's war on terror. Similarly, Bush often invited close allies to his Crawford, Texas ranch. Getting the personal treatment from the president of the United States is some of the most valuable political capital any foreign leader can receive, regardless of the concrete outcomes of the meeting. Obama has also provided the homespun touch to close allies, such as British Prime Minister David Cameron, who sat next to the president at a basketball game last year, in Ohio.

Yet U.S. relations with Japan and Britain are completely different than those with China. Just last week, the news broke that China has been hacking the United States' most advanced weapons systems; Chinese theft of intellectual property -- both military and commercial -- remains rampant. Beijing continues to support rogue regimes around the world, including North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Sudan. Its paramilitary forces, such as its maritime patrol fleet, intimidate smaller Asian nations like Vietnam and the Philippines over territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. So why is the United States rewarding China, when it should be censuring it instead?

The short answer, of course, is that America is economically dependent on China, with nearly $400 billion dollars in bilateral trade each year, and nearly $1 trillion of U.S. debt held by Beijing. Washington's fears of somehow upsetting this economic relationship have hamstrung consecutive administrations, who have warily watched China's military growth while doing everything possible to encourage economic ties.

Yet as China has grown stronger, it has also become far more assertive, creating uncertainty and even instability in Asia, while undermining liberal norms around the world. In spite of this, the Obama administration is doubling down on its engagement with Beijing. This week's summit is not the only gift that the United States has given China. The Obama administration invited China to join the RIMPAC naval exercise, which is an annual naval practice normally reserved for close American partners. In addition, the top-level Strategic and Economic Dialogue, held annually, has become one of the most-publicized diplomatic initiatives undertaken by Washington. The Chinese leadership must be delighted -- why should they modify their behavior when Washington's China policy is all carrot and no stick?

The administration is forgetting that national interests, and not personalities, drive international politics. It needs to free itself from the idea that finding the soft spot in a foreign leader antagonistic towards the United States improves bilateral relationships. At least since Leonid Brezhnev, U.S. presidents have been trying to tap into the personal side of authoritarian leaders, so as to penetrate the bureaucratic armor that they believe prevents a more meaningful exchanges of ideas.

That, in fact, is one of the great arguments made in favor of regular meetings: that personalities on both sides will not only come to understand each other better, but that our side will come away with keener insight into the preferences and biases of opposing leaders, and have a line into seeing how decisions are made. Yet, despite years of regular communication, the gulf that exists between Chinese and American views of the world belies the idea that summits, no matter how chummy, can create a community of interests where none exist. National interests, not Xi's seemingly effusive personality, will dictate just how much Beijing is willing to reconsider its policy goals. In reality, there are almost no shared values between Beijing and Washington, and little complementary policy. The Chinese engage with the United States because it allows them to play the charade of backslapping, while sidestepping tough issues. 

Unfortunately, Washington finds itself in a dialogue dependency trap. The metric for judging the success of the relationship has devolved to a question of how often and at what level U.S. officials meet the Chinese. The government and proponents of continued dialogue assert that it's of great value to know one's counterpart, in case there's a need to make that 3 a.m. call. The Chinese encourage such thinking, as seen in the statements by a leading academic that, "as long as China and the United States can work to genuinely place themselves in the other's shoes, they have a good chance of minimizing the potential for conflict and of building lasting trust."

But again, that mistakes the personal for the professional, especially between political systems so antithetical to each other as America's and China's. Crises will be resolved if both parties feel it is in their interest, not according to the strength of the personal relationship between leaders. After all, former President George H.W. Bush's longtime experience in China and close relations with its leaders did nothing to avert the Tiananmen Square massacre. Similarly, Vice President Joe Biden is reputed to have rapport with Xi since their meeting in 2012, but that hasn't translated into any resolution of our outstanding differences, or in the tamping down of tensions with U.S. allies in the East and South China Seas.

While it is too late to pull out of this summit, the president still has time to come up with a concrete list of issues that Washington expects movement on. He should make it clear that this experiment in going outside the boundaries of traditional Sino-U.S. meetings will be a one-off if there is no change in Chinese behavior. A better approach in general would be to restrict such top-level meetings until truly necessary, or when it is clear that some agreement on a significant issue has been reached and there will be a measureable outcome. Washington needs not merely to accept that its relations with China are purely transactional, but to act that way, as well. 

Focusing on results during future summits would communicate that Washington is serious about protecting its interests. While our diplomats certainly deal seriously with their Chinese counterparts, the tone set at the top of this administration (and previous ones) has been too accommodating, too willing to play what we think is the long-game of engagement, while ignoring the longer Chinese game of undermining U.S. influence in Asia and globally while avoiding commitment to solving disagreements between us. Unfortunately, this week's "shirt-sleeves" summit will fail to produce a more meaningful U.S.-China relationship because it is driven by wishful thinking, and not by a ruthless desire to protect U.S. interests.


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