With Abbas absent, Palestinian premier is star of virus crisis

Ramallah (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) –


The contrast could hardly have been starker -- an octogenarian Palestinian president giving a brief pre-recorded speech, and a prime minister talking in-depth and fielding questions about the coronavirus response.

As the Palestinian government seeks to combat the spread of COVID-19, its long-time leader, president Mahmud Abbas, has been all but absent, with prime minister Mohammed Shtayyeh instead in charge.

Analysts say Shtayyeh has appeared in control of the detail while taking rapid measures that have so far limited the number of officially declared novel coronavirus cases in the occupied West Bank to around 250.

Polling shows overwhelming support for the government's response, and Shtayyeh's impressive performance has increased talk of him as Abbas's potential successor.

"Shtayyeh is clearly the most prominent Palestinian politician" since the coronavirus outbreak began, said Ofer Zalzberg, an analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank.

With Palestinian politics dominated by those from the era of Yasser Arafat in the 1990s, at 62 Shtayyeh is among the youngest senior officials.

He speaks fluent English, unlike Abbas, and having earned a doctorate in development in the United Kingdom has a strong grasp of the international aid system.

"This is the first time Shtayyeh has acquired significant support among Palestinian people as a potential long-term successor to Abbas," Zalzberg added.

- 'Fake' Abbas rumours -

When COVID-19 first arrived in Israel, the Palestinian government tasked individual ministries with tackling the crisis, Palestinian and international officials said.

Israel has militarily occupied the West Bank for decades, but the Palestinian government has limited self-autonomy in cities.

When the first cases were confirmed in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on March 5, Abbas tapped Shtayyeh to lead the government's response.

The premier formed an emergency committee superseding all ministries, locked down Bethlehem and announced a state of emergency in the West Bank, with schools closed and all but essential movement banned.

"They took action very rapidly and really took the crisis management function to the highest level," Gerald Rockenschaub, head of the World Health Organization's Palestinian office, said.

The measures have helped limit the spread of the virus and its impact on the Palestinians' weak health infrastructure.

Abbas, 84, is the head of the Fatah party, of which Shtayyeh is a member, and has been in power since winning a presidential vote in 2005.

No fresh elections have taken place since then, amid a schism with the other dominant Palestinian party Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.

Abbas has had health problems in recent years, and has largely withdrawn from public life since the pandemic broke out, sparking fierce rumours about his health.

Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, took to Twitter at the end of March to say the president's health was "excellent".

"News about his admittance to hospital is null, void and fake," he added.

Shtayyeh, meanwhile, has held regular press conferences and appeared at police checkpoints, and aid officials say he and health minister Mai al-Kaila have communicated regularly with international donors on their coronavirus strategy.

- Crisis 'not over' -

Abbas finally appeared on television on April 3, giving a four-minute pre-recorded speech widely interpreted as seeking to quash health concerns.

An hour later, Shtayyeh gave a 40-minute press conference answering detailed questions about the COVID-19 response.

"He is dynamic, he is young, he has energy," Palestinian political analyst Nour Odeh said of Shtayyeh.

"Everybody is very grateful this happened on his watch."

She said that together with ministers such as Kaila, who holds a doctorate in health administration, a younger generation of Palestinian leaders was "taking charge and showing they can do an excellent job."

Odeh pointed to Palestinian coronavirus checkpoints now set up throughout the West Bank as an example.

Decades of Israeli military occupation have created Palestinian resentment to checkpoints, but officials are now highlighting how the temporary "barriers of love" to monitor people for coronavirus are benefitting everyone.

A poll of West Bank Palestinians released this week found 96 percent trusted the government's handling of the crisis.

And with Shtayyeh's star rising, talk has turned to whether he could ultimately replace Abbas.

Shtayyeh "has shown his competence and professionalism and Palestinians are noticing," Zalzberg said.

"But the crisis is not over -- if things change for the worse he still risks falling on his face."

The Palestinians have launched a plan calling for $137 million from international donors for their COVID-19 response, but aid officials say there is little funding available as Western countries tackle their own crises.

The Palestinian government may struggle to pay full salaries to its employees next month, while tens of thousands of Palestinians who work in Israel to support their families have returned home without pay for the duration of the crisis.

Odeh agreed the pressure would increase as infections rise and the financial cost becomes more stark.

"But for now, he (Shtayyeh) has earned the praise and he will relish it," she said.