From World Bank to West Bank: Mohammad Mustafa, the new Palestinian PM

The PA needs to show it can govern effectively. Israel says it can't, an argument it uses to justify its occupation.

Mohammad Mustafa, a respected technocrat, is the latest in a revolving door of prime ministers under Mahmoud Abbas. He arrives at a critical time when Palestine's future is at stake.
Lina Jaradat
Mohammad Mustafa, a respected technocrat, is the latest in a revolving door of prime ministers under Mahmoud Abbas. He arrives at a critical time when Palestine's future is at stake.

From World Bank to West Bank: Mohammad Mustafa, the new Palestinian PM

Since establishing the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah, 19 governments have been formed under the leadership of eight prime ministers.

The latest one looks very different. On 14 March, long-serving President Mahmoud Abbas appointed Mohammad Mustafa, also known as Al-Safarini, as the latest incumbent.

Mr Mustafa likes the numbers, not the politics. He is not affiliated with any political faction, so he follows in the footsteps of his predecessors, Salam Fayyad and Rami Hamdallah, in being independent.

Mustafa's background is similar to Fayyad's. He has experience in academia and the World Bank and an established track record as an integrity administrator.

His cabinet also looks different in that it is technocratic, non-factional, and apolitical. Its focus is on administration, development, reconstruction, the provision of public services, and the overall sound management of Palestinian society.

This is a significant departure from the political dynamics of past administrations. He replaces Mohammad Shtayyeh, who has been in the job since 2019 and sat on the Fatah Central Committee.

Abbas’s decision was influenced by a mix of old and new pressures, not least calls for him to relinquish some of his powers via administrative and legal reforms. The idea behind this is to diminish Fatah’s dominance of the PA’s governance and make it a more unifying body.

War in Gaza has put the spotlight on Abbas and Fatah. If the PA is to have a role in governing Gaza after Hamas, the international community wants the PA to get in shape because the reconstruction task is enormous.

A first priority would be to address the humanitarian needs of two million Gazans who are starving and traumatised. After that, the PA would need to try to make Gaza habitable again. An estimated 35% of buildings have been destroyed.

A general view of the destruction in the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood in Gaza City on 15 January 2024.

In pictures: Over half of Gaza's buildings destroyed or damaged by Israel

The PA needs to demonstrate that it can govern effectively. Israel says it can’t, an argument it uses to justify its occupation.

The PA must persuade sceptics that Israel is wrong. Its standing with international stakeholders, notably the United States, must rise if it is to support its bid for full United Nations membership.

Enormous task

As he steps into his new job, Mustafa has much to do. To start, he must establish an effective government that operates independently of Abbas and Fatah.

If he succeeds, he would be the first of eight Palestinian prime ministers to do so, given the president’s dominance and reluctance to loosen his grip.

If Mustafa is given responsibility for rebuilding Gaza, he will need all the help he can get. Much of the Strip is in ruins, and most of its people are displaced.

He will need to work with multiple parties, including Israel, the US, other Western nations, and what remains of Hamas, all the while trying to add Israel's occupation and settlement policies in the West Bank.

As if that weren’t enough, his other challenges include Israel’s efforts to change the demographic and cultural identity of Jerusalem, confiscate land, expand settlements, build bypass roads, and withhold the PA’s money.

Moreover, his in-tray is still filling up because the war is not yet over. Only when it is will its impact on the broader dynamics of Palestinian politics become apparent. Whether conditions allow for Palestinian unity remains to be seen.

Whatever lies ahead, the timing of his appointment makes it clear that Mohammad Mustafa is likely to be a key figure in the future of millions of Palestinians. Who is he?

Mustafa has much to do in his new role. The PA needs to show it can govern effectively. Israel says it can't, an argument it uses to justify its occupation.

World Bank economist

Born in 1954 in the village of Safarin near Tulkarm in the northern West Bank, he has achieved notable academic and professional success.

He graduated from the University of Baghdad in 1976 with a degree in electrical engineering. He then studied economics and business administration at George Washington University, where he earned a Master's in 1985 and a doctorate in 1988.

He went on to hold several positions at the World Bank in Washington from 1991 to 2005, where he covered Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, working on industry, energy, infrastructure, and privatisation.

Kuwait's government sought his advice on economic reform, and he was a consultant to Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund. These contacts may yet come in useful.

In 1995-96, he founded the Palestine Telecommunications Company and managed the Palestine Investment Fund from 2006-13, later chairing its board of directors, so he is familiar and comfortable with the private sector.

Since 2005, he has been an economic advisor to Abbas. From 2013-15, he was the deputy prime minister responsible for the economy. In 2022, he joined the Palestine Liberation Organisation's executive committee and led its economic department.

Revolving door

In recent years, it has been difficult to keep up with all the ministerial and prime ministerial changes within the Palestinian political system.

This suggests that the Palestinians in the West Bank have been having problems not just with stability but with democratic processes and even constitutional validity.

Many short-lived administrations under two long-serving presidents (Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas) suggest that the PA lacks legitimacy.

Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas (L) posing with the newly appointed Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Mustafa in Ramallah on March 14, 2024.

Moreover, no presidential or legislative elections have been held since 2005, and Abbas will soon have been president for 20 years.

This is not necessarily the fault of the Palestinians. The PA is, after all, operating under occupation. Israel does whatever it can to thwart the foundation of a Palestinian state. A compliant PA is just what Tel Aviv ordered.

The more Israeli settlements expand across the West Bank and Jerusalem, the less land Palestinians can self-govern. They are left with more people but less territory.

Israel also has day-to-day operational control of vital resources and infrastructure, including water, electricity, trade, borders, crossings, security and admin.

What it lacks in capability, it makes up for in the trappings of the state. The PA has a president, a prime minister, ministerial departments, ambassadors, a flag, and a national anthem. It will need more than symbolism if it is to meet the challenges ahead.

Ministers coming and going have been the order of the day for two decades. Only Abbas's resignation could bring meaningful change.

The Palestinian people need a robust political system based on a national vision and strategy that most people can support. This should harmonise the goals of national liberation with establishing an independent Palestinian state, factoring in the current circumstances.

Presidential and legislative elections have been needed for years. They are now urgent, as is Palestinian unity. Gaza needs the world's attention. The Palestinians have a herculean task ahead of them. Mr Mustafa needs to press on unhindered.

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