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Long road ahead for Palestinian Authority reforms

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas (L) presents his new prime minister, Mohammed Mustafa, a long-trusted adviser on economic affairs, at the Palestinian Authority's headquarters in Ramallah
— Ramallah (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

Nineteen years after assuming the presidency, Mahmud Abbas has timidly begun reforming the Palestinian Authority under US pressure, though diplomats were unconvinced a revamped administration was ready for a post-Gaza war future.

Abbas, 88, is dogged by low popularity among Palestinians and Israel's decades-old occupation of the West Bank where his government is based.

In January, just over three months into the Israel-Hamas war, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Abbas in Ramallah and urged "administrative reforms" to benefit Palestinians and potentially reunite the West Bank and Gaza under a single rule.

The Palestinian president has moved to fill vacant governor positions and on March 15 appointed economist and long-trusted adviser Mohammed Mustafa as prime minister.

It is "a start, but it won't be enough", said Hasan Khreisheh, deputy speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, the PA's parliament which has not met since 2007.

Abbas is expected to name a full government by early April, and Khreisheh said the White House is expecting a cabinet "as soon as possible".

"The Americans want more important measures so they can say there has been renewal," he said.

The fighting and destruction in the Gaza Strip -- which Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas took over from Abbas's government in 2007 -- has piled pressure on the Palestinian Authority.

The PA has long been stained by divisions, corruption scandals and authoritarian tendencies, and Abbas's recent measures have so far done little to reassure diplomats eager to find an able and reliable Palestinian partner when the war ends.

- 'Doesn't change much' -

Abbas, elected in 2005, is formally president in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, though the besieged territory is run by longtime rivals Hamas, whose October 7 attack on Israel triggered the ongoing war.

The unprecedented Hamas attack resulted in the deaths of 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official figures.

Israel's retaliatory military campaign has killed at least 32,414 people in Gaza, most of them women and children, according to the territory's health ministry.

Arab and Western powers want to see a reformed PA that could one day be in charge of an independent state in the both West Bank and Gaza.

The first move by Abbas was the appointment of regional governors in the West Bank whose seats had been unoccupied since August, followed by naming Mustafa to lead a new government.

But Western diplomats told AFP they were not convinced any substantial reforms were on the table.

"It doesn't change much," said one of them on condition of anonymity.

"We're waiting to see what comes next".

Mustafa, 69, is not a member of Abbas's Fatah party, but pundits view it as little proof of a political revamp, noting his rich past as financial adviser to the president, deputy premier and economy minister in Fatah-led governments.

One diplomat said Mustafa's experience at the World Bank meant he knows "all international donors", which may come in handy for the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority -- particularly if it takes on the colossal task of rebuilding war-battered Gaza.

- 'Suffocation' -

For his first public appearance after his nomination, Mustafa talked of "transparency" and "zero tolerance" for corruption.

But Palestinian commentators say Abbas must still prove his determination to avoid authoritarianism.

He has remained in power without elections since his term expired in 2009, and in 2018 dissolved parliament, which by law is meant to approve the government.

Political divisions that have long plagued Palestinian politics remain a major hurdle.

Neither Abbas nor Mustafa have spoken publicly about the role Hamas could play in government, and the new prime minister has made no mention of intra-Palestinian reconciliation which his predecessor Mohammed Shtayyeh had painted as an "urgent need".

Either way, some observers worry about the actual impact any institutional reforms can have in an environment heavily constrained by Israel.

"For the next government to be able to make a difference, it would have to be able to breathe financially and politically," said Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian minister and a professor at Birzeit University near Ramallah.

Israel has occupied the West Bank since 1967, when it also seized the Gaza Strip. Despite withdrawing from the coastal territory in 2005, it has maintained control over its borders and imposed a crippling blockade when Hamas seized power.

Khatib denounced what he called Israel's "suffocation" of the PA by withholding tax revenues and obstructing elections.

"If you want to reform, you need elections, and Israel must allow Palestinians to hold them," Khatib said.

Abbas called off the last planned elections, in 2021, citing Israel's refusal to allow voting in annexed east Jerusalem.

Polls at the time predicted a Hamas victory.