New Palestinian PM to follow in Fayyad's footsteps

Incoming Palestinian prime minister Rami Hamdallah, a little-known academic and political independent, looks set to follow closely in the footsteps of his Western-backed predecessor Salam Fayyad in a move likely to be welcomed by the international community.

Hamdallah, who was named to the post late on Sunday by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, is a prestigious linguist who heads one of the top universities in the West Bank but is completely unknown overseas.

On accepting the nomination, Hamdallah quickly pledged to follow a similar path to Fayyad and said he would leave the government lineup largely unchanged.

And he made clear he would quickly step aside in the summer after the formation of a government of national unity comprising Abbas's Fatah party and its Islamist rival, Hamas.

"The new government will be a continuation of the last government, most of the ministers will continue to serve in their positions," he told Voice of Palestine radio on Monday.

His new cabinet, he said, would be an interim step on the road to a unity government comprising Fatah and Hamas as foreseen in an as-yet unfulfilled unity agreement signed in 2011.

Hamdallah's appointment was welcomed by Fatah, which dominates the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, but rejected by Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip.

"Rami Hamdallah is a national patriot and an independent and we hope that he can lead the (new) government for three months to give us an opportunity to form a united government with Hamas," said Amin Maqbul, head of the Fatah Revolutionary Council.

But Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Hamdallah's appointment was a carbon copy of what had happened with Fayyad, who was very popular with the West but strongly disliked by the Islamist movement.

"The new government in Ramallah is illegitimate, an extension of the illegal and illegitimate government of Fayyad," he told AFP, saying it only added to the political divide and "bypasses the reconciliation agreement."

Reaction in Israel and abroad was more positive, with Washington welcoming his appointment, and Israeli pundits describing him as "a good man" and a moderate pragmatist vis-a-vis the Jewish state.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been deeply involved in efforts to revive the long-dormant peace process, hailed his nomination, saying it came "at a moment of challenge, which is also an important moment of opportunity."

Although there was no official response from the government, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon told a parliamentary committee that Hamdallah was an unknown quantity in political terms.

"We do not know the new prime minister as a statesman but as a professor and we shall see how things develop," he said. "It is to be hoped that we shall find ourselves faced with pragmatic people."

Israeli officials quoted by army radio said the new Palestinian prime minister was "a moderate and a pragmatist who will follow the same political line as his predecessor."

He was, they said, someone who "knows how to speak to the West."

But sources quoted by Haaretz newspaper said it was unlikely he would be able to shape the political map.

"Hamdallah is considered moderate and pragmatic as far as Israel and the peace process goes but it is doubtful that he will have any influence in the foreseeable future," it said.

And the paper's diplomatic correspondent said he had taken on a Sisyphean task, assuming overnight "the most thankless job in the West Bank."

"His chances of success are so low that some would say agreeing to take the post is akin to taking a suicide mission," wrote Barak Ravid.

"Hamdallah will have to persuade the United States and the other donor states that he is a serious, honest, corruption-free partner, at least as much as Fayyad was," he wrote.

Fayyad was widely respected by the international community for building a sound institutional framework for the Palestinian Authority, and his resignation sparked concern over who would take up his mantle.

Israel had also built a working relationship with Fayyad, particularly over security cooperation, with pundits suggesting his departure could harm the Jewish state's willingness to promote economic measures in the West Bank.

"Hamdallah does not enjoy the international status of his predecessor and is relatively unknown in Washington and in European capitals. If the West sense that there is no responsible adult safeguarding the Palestinian coffers, the donations that keep the Palestinian Authority alive will soon be halted," Ravid said.

Fayyad's departure comes at the worst time for Kerry, who has been battling to revive peace talks after a nearly three-year hiatus, and who has pledged to push through a $4 billion plan to develop the Palestinian economy.