Analysis

The New Palestinian Prime Minister Hopes to Regain the Public’s Trust — if It’s Not Too Late

Mohammad Shtayyeh’s government has pledged to ‘bridge the gaps’ between the leaders and the people, as the AMAN Coalition for Accountability and Integrity details nepotism and poor governance in a new report

New Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, right, and President Mahmoud Abbas, Ramallah, April 13, 2019.
Mohamad Torokman / Reuters

The members of the new Palestinian cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, will fly tourist class and suffice with their predecessors’ cars. They won’t be getting new cars, as is customary. These are only two of the initial steps to be announced in the next two weeks heralding a regimen of cutbacks and efficiency for the Ramallah government.

The purpose of these steps, in addition to the savings, is to bridge the gaps between government officials and private citizens, and to change the government’s image. This was the promise by the new government’s spokesman, Ibrahim Melhem, in an interview with the independent news channel Al Watan. The words “gaps” and “image” hint at the mistrust the people feel toward their leaders, who behave as if they’re superior, leading lavish and ostentatious lifestyles.

The talk of “austerity and rationalization” by the government and its ministers echoes the recommendations made for years by the AMAN Coalition for Accountability and Integrity, a nongovernmental organization that fights government corruption. The group also recently called on the ministers to release declarations on their wealth — a recommendation yet to be acted on.

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AMAN was established in 2000 as a coalition of nonprofit groups that promote democracy and transparency, and this is the 11th year it’s submitting a comprehensive report on the fight against corruption in the areas of the Palestinian Authority and the Gaza Strip. The latest report was presented to the public at a conference a week ago Wednesday — only four days after Shtayyeh’s new government was sworn in. The conference adopted the motto “Listen to the people and do not oppress ... Fight corruption and do not fear.” As usual, the speakers and the audience were divided between Gaza and Ramallah; they communicated via video conference, with screens in every hall.

The report, which is 104 pages long in Arabic, was presented by AMAN Chairman Abd al-Qader al-Husseini, the son of the beloved Jerusalem-born Fatah leader Faisal al-Husseini, who died in 2001. The AMAN head is also the grandson of the fighter against the British and the Zionists who was killed in the battle at Qastel in the 1947-49 war, Abd al-Qader al-Husseini.

The grandson said his organization is willing to discuss the report’s findings with the new government, to promote “a genuine partnership based on sharing the responsibility and the burden.” He pleaded with the new government to prioritize the fight against corruption and promote the rule of law, the separation of powers, respect for the legal system and openness toward the public.

Husseini speaks in a calm and quiet voice, not with the pathos as seen at mass rallies. He and his colleagues in AMAN aren’t elected representatives of the public. They draw the moral authority to advise and criticize the government from the very absence of elected representatives in the Palestinian political system; that is, a legislative authority.

And the current report, like its predecessors, criticizes the deliberate paralysis of the Palestinian Legislative Council for 12 years, a paralysis that gave a free hand to the executive arm (headed by President Mahmoud Abbas) to operate without transparency and without accountability. In the past year the Constitutional Court issued a “political decision,” as the report puts it, referring to Abbas’ order to dissolve the Legislative Council without even setting a date for an election.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas posing for a photo with members of the new Palestinian government, Ramallah, April 13, 2019.
Mohamad Torokman / Reuters

The report singles out the finance minister for criticism: “The people finance around 85 percent of the state’s revenues. However, the absence of the PLC in approving, monitoring and controlling budget spending let the finance minister have sole control over the management of public funds with no representation of the people or their civil institutions.”

The government’s comfort zone

But the criticism is not directed only at the finance minister. “As a result of paralysis of the PLC,” the report states, “the government’s performance became rooted far from formal accountability of representatives elected by the people. This means that the executive authority and public companies were not held accountable (they were in a comfort zone), especially because members of the PLC were happy to manage their offices while receiving their full salaries and privileges without carrying out their monitoring and control role on the management of public funds and privatized public services such as water, electricity and communications. Moreover, the executive authority’s comfort increased as it discovered the weakness of official inquiry committees, which were formed on more than one occasion, and the weakness of the findings.”

The AMAN report stresses a series of appointments that don’t conform to the regulations or the principle of equality of opportunity, but which were made by Abbas’ direct order or intervention. According to the report, 62 senior officials were appointed in 39 presidential orders by Abbas, breaching Palestinian basic law. In another 26 orders, 110 people were promoted to the rank of ambassador or deputy assistant.

“Also, most appointments and promotions, especially of ambassadors, were carried out based on nepotism, loyalties and power-sharing. Some officials’ sons and daughters sought positions in the judiciary, prosecution and the diplomatic corps, but we must note that we were unable to obtain information on sons and daughters in high positions in the security services or the president’s office.” Seven district governors and deputy governors were also appointed in improper processes, as well as officials in NGOs whose salaries are paid from the state budget.

The report mentions appointments via special contracts to several public institutions; the special contract makes it possible to evade official hiring procedures in the public sector — which cost, according to the report, more than 61 million shekels ($17 million). In the same breath the writers mention how some people were retired for reasons of personal or political rivalry rather than the accepted criteria. Meanwhile, people near retirement age were promoted, guaranteeing themselves better salary conditions.

The report is based on investigations by AMAN, official publications, citizen complaints to government ministries and to institutions established especially to fight corruption, as well as on public opinion polls that consistently point to the people’s severe lack of confidence in their senior officials: the political parties, the presidency, the government, the judiciary, the security services. If there were transparency, and if information were published, maybe the problem of a lack of confidence wouldn’t be so acute, the report suggests.

Among the many other issues mentioned in the report are problems in the local councils, the judiciary’s weakness, the ministries’ skirting their obligation to publish reports and keep information accessible to everyone in an archive, the government’s flouting of the Freedom of Information Law, and a concealing of the details of business contracts with Israel.

But the appointments to senior positions in particular and the need for connections to receive an ordinary job are among the issues that anger the public the most. It’s common to hear in everyday conversations complaints about a fellow student, the son of a VIP who received a good government position quickly even though his grades weren’t impressive. Or a mention of the names of all the relatives of senior officials in Fatah or the PA who also have good jobs.

The chances to get a job in the West Bank enclaves have worsened in the past year: The withdrawal of American support for projects in the West Bank and Gaza has led to the dismissal of hundreds of Palestinians, many of them young people who worked in NGOs. And now Israel’s decision to withhold from clearance money it owes the PA, a sum equivalent to the allowances for families of prisoners and of people killed by Israel, has greatly reduced PA revenues.

Moreover, and according to Abbas’ decision (which is criticized by economists and ministers, but not in public), the Palestinian Finance Ministry does not accept the rest of the sum, which is composed of customs and taxes that Israel collects for imported goods, cigarettes and fuel destined for the PA.

Therefore, public sector employees with monthly salaries over 2,000 shekels are now receiving half of it. The knowledge that there’s a sizable group of people who for years arranged good positions for themselves (and sometimes several salaries at the same time), not thanks to their abilities but to political and other connections is infuriating.

Protesters protesting the Palestinian social security law, Ramallah, January 15, 2019.
Nasser Nasser/AP

It’s especially infuriating in such periods of cutbacks, with one of the main concerns being the bank debt in which most Palestinians are mired up to their necks. They’ve taken loans to pay for basics such as university studies and even high school for their children, or their son’s wedding and housing, the improvement of land and the buying of a home, a car, electrical appliances, trees or equipment for greenhouses, Everyone complains about consumerism and the government’s encouragement to take out loans and buy things, but most people take part in it.

No new taxes

The large constituency of worried people received two promises Tuesday. Before Ramadan, which begins in about two weeks, public sector employees will receive 60 percent of their monthly salary. That’s progress: 10 percentage points over last month’s salary.

These payments were made possible, as Shtayyeh noted immediately after his government was sworn in, by the safety net the banks have given the government. To solve the crisis, the government isn’t raising taxes (the hint was clear: unlike Hamas in Gaza), and the Palestine Monetary Authority has ordered the banks to postpone the regular payments deducted from the people’s accounts.

In an interview with the Voice of Palestine on Monday, the governor of the monetary authority, Azzam Shawwa, said he hopes the financial crisis will be solved by July — in about three months. That’s also the target date mentioned by Shtayyeh after the swearing in of his government. “The government,” he said, “has an emergency plan for a period of three months, and we hope that a solution will be found to the financial crisis from which our people are suffering.”

What’s the wonder drug that will enable extrication from a crisis that’s in fact acute but joins the chronic crisis stemming above all from the restrictions on movement and development imposed by Israel? There’s no way of knowing.

Shtayyeh spoke about restoring confidence between the leadership and the public. Is that possible when on social media and in private conversations almost every PA official or appointee or NGO is suspected of corruption?

Is it possible with a government with 22 ministers? (People on social media have mocked the number of ministers, and the AMAN report mentions this unnecessary inflation.)

Is it possible to restore confidence when most of the new ministers aren’t familiar to the public, and two of them from the previous government — Foreign Minister Riad Malki and Finance Minister Shukri Bishara — receive a negative grade in the report? And the main thing: Is it possible to restore confidence when the authority in whose name the government actually exists and works isn’t the people but Abbas?

The AMAN report doesn’t mention people like ministers or senior appointees by name, only their positions. The exception is Abbas, whose name is mentioned six times and is alluded to dozens more times as “president” or “presidential orders” — whether in a simple description of the situation, in criticism of unacceptable practices, or in addressing recommendations for repair and improvement.

This reflects the tremendous power concentrated in Abbas’ hands. Even if he’s not the one who created the traditions of nepotism and betrayal of trust, his centralized government that destroyed the legislature and dwarfed the judiciary have reduced the chances and efforts to fight those traditions. On the other hand, the tenacity and daring of the writers and submitters of the AMAN report make a statement that the situation shouldn’t be accepted as a divine decree, and that the people have the power to effect change.