Coronavirus crisis boosts Shtayyeh’s chances of becoming next PA president

One year after he was appointed as prime minister, the 62-year-old Shtayyeh has now significantly improved his chances of becoming the next PA president.

PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh gestures as he arrives for a cabinet meeting of the new Palestinian government, in Ramallah, April 15, 2019 (photo credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS)
PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh gestures as he arrives for a cabinet meeting of the new Palestinian government, in Ramallah, April 15, 2019
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh has become the public face of the Palestinians’ fight against the coronavirus pandemic, winning plaudits from Palestinians from across the political spectrum for his management of the crisis.
One year after he was appointed as prime minister, Shtayyeh, 62, has significantly improved his chances of becoming the next PA president.
Most of the leaders of the PA, including 84-year-old President Mahmoud Abbas, have been in self-imposed isolation since the discovery of the first coronavirus case in the Bethlehem area on March 5.
Other Palestinian officials previously touted as possible successors to Abbas, including Jibril Rajoub, Majed Faraj, Saeb Erekat and Mahmoud Aloul, have also been in self-isolation since the outbreak of the virus due to underlying health issues.
“In the absence of Abbas and many senior Palestinian officials, Shtayyeh has taken the lead in combating the coronavirus pandemic,” Palestinian political analyst Maher Awad said. “So far, it seems that he’s doing a good job, and that’s why many Palestinians are satisfied with the way he’s handling the crisis. His public appearances and the daily briefings of his government’s spokesman, Ibrahim Milhem, are seen as very credible, transparent, reassuring and responsible.”
Last week, even Shtayyeh’s rivals in Hamas welcomed his recent announcement that the PA government, in light of the coronavirus crisis, would cancel its decision to force thousands of Palestinian employees from the Gaza Strip into early retirement. That decision was taken by the PA three years ago as part of economic sanctions aimed at undermining Hamas rule over the Gaza Strip.
“By rescinding the decision to force thousands of employees into early retirement, Shtayyeh has touched a chord with many Palestinians who want to see an end to the dispute between the ruling Fatah faction and Hamas,” Palestinian political analyst Ala’ Mujahed said. “Unlike Abbas, who does not seem to care about the Gaza Strip, Shtayyeh has shown that he cares about Palestinian unity during this critical phase.”
Last week, Shtayyeh won the hearts and minds of many Palestinian children by directly appealing to them not to leave their homes, showing the affection and concern of a father. Addressing the children, he said: “I know you miss school and your friends, and I know you are not causing trouble for your parents and that you are staying at home. You are the future of our people. If you have any new ideas, send them to us.”
Many children did not remain indifferent to Shtayyeh’s appeal and sent him videos thanking him for his warm words.
“Hello Dr. Mohammed, how are you? We will listen to you and send you beautiful things,” one girl said in a video she sent to the prime minister.
Two sisters, ages 11 and 12, posted a video in which they said: “To our prime minister: We know you care about our health, and that’s why you want us to stay at home, study and help our mother. We saw your message and want to thank you.”
Ahmed Dweikat, director of the Madeed Society Center for Counseling Mental Health, praised Shtayyeh for talking to the children in their own language.
“This creates a kind of self-enhancement among children, giving them space to think about themselves and a feeling that they are an effective and important element of Palestinian society,” he told Wafa, the PA’s news agency.
“By directly addressing the children, the prime minister has reinforced the idea that the children are mature and have a vision for the future,” Dweikat said. “Shtayyeh does not want the children to remember him for the state of emergency announced during the crisis. He understands that the psychological pressure on children is more than on adults.”
Palestinian researcher Fadi Abu Bakr said the Shtayyeh government has gained the confidence of the Palestinian public “because it is managing the conflict with discipline and in a responsible manner.” In an article published in the Amman newspaper ad-Dustour, he said Shtayyeh’s economic expertise allows him to play a crucial role in devising solutions to the economic problems caused by the coronavirus crisis.
Shtayyeh previously served as minister of public works and housing and minister of the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction. He holds a doctorate in economic development from the University of Sussex in Britain.
Shtayyeh, a member of the Fatah Central Committee, was known for his close ties with former PLO chairman Yasser Arafat. He also played a key role in peace negotiations with Israel since the early 1990s.
“Coronavirus has boosted Shtayyeh’s chances of becoming the next Palestinian president,” said a veteran Fatah official who worked with him for more than 12 years. “The man is charismatic, hard-working and reliable. When the crisis is over, Palestinians will look around and find Shtayyeh as the most suitable candidate to replace President Abbas. He has also earned the respect of many Fatah officials for his calm demeanor during the crisis. We all know that Abbas’s successor needs the backing of Fatah.”
While Shtayyeh may have won praise from many Palestinians for his handling of the coronavirus crisis, he has been condemned by some in Israel for a series of anti-Israel statements, especially in the past few weeks.
Earlier this week, Shtayyeh said Israeli soldiers were spreading the disease among Palestinians by spitting at vehicles in Hebron.
Later, he criticized Israel for not taking precautionary measures to prevent Palestinians who work in Israel from contracting the disease and infecting their families after they return home.
“According to our agreement with Israel, Palestinian workers should have been allowed to work and stay in Israel for two consecutive months,” Shtayyeh said. “Israel breached this agreement by returning half of the workers within two days from the date of this agreement.”
Despite the cooperation between his government and Israel to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, Shtayyeh this week announced he would not “accept Israeli guardianship over our measures. What is required is for Israel to leave us alone. The real weakness in our battle against COVID-19 is the Israeli occupation and all its policies that attempt to thwart our efforts to protect our people.”
By resorting to harsh criticism against Israel, Shtayyeh hopes to score points with the Palestinian public by projecting himself as a tough and unrelenting leader, particularly when it comes to dealing with Israeli policies and measures.
“For Shtayyeh, what’s important now is not what the Israelis are saying about him, but what his own people think of him,” said a former official in the PA prime minister’s office.
“As far as many Palestinians are concerned, he has so far displayed honesty and integrity in handling one of the worst crises facing his people,” the former official said. “He has also proven to be a good communicator. Of course, not everyone is happy with his performance, but there’s a feeling the man is on his way to becoming the next leader.”
The PA Health Ministry said the coronavirus outbreak was first detected on March 5 at the Angel Hotel in Beit Jala, adjoining Bethlehem, where a group of Greek tourists had visited in late February, with two later diagnosed with the virus.
The first two cases in Gaza City were diagnosed on March 21. There were 12 cases there as of Wednesday.
PA Health Ministry spokesman Kamal Shakhra confirmed 21 new cases on Thursday, bringing the total to 155 in the West Bank. Most of the cases are Palestinians who worked in Israel and returned home and those who were in contact with them. Twenty were from the Ramallah and Jerusalem-area villages and one in Hebron.
Workers returning home this week until the end of Passover were asked to begin self-isolation for two weeks. The Health Ministry said it planned to check an estimated 60,000 workers as they return.