Palestinian Authority (West Bank sector) Prime Minister Salam Fayyad walks an unenviable political tight rope. Akiva Eldar interviewed Fayyad in this weekend’s Ha’aretz, and that balancing act was very much on display.
Fayyad works hard to maintain the confidence of the U.S. and the donor nations who keep his PA afloat. This he achieves with flying colors and he is feted (sometimes too much for his own good) by Washington, a meeting yesterday with VP Cheney for instance (though not with Senator McCain last week—the Senator for Arizona did not meet with any Palestinians).
He works with the Israelis on the day-to-day issues of co-ordination without which his PA could not function in the still IDF-controlled West Bank. When the new US Envoy for Roadmap implementation, General William M. Fraser, convenes a trilateral meeting, Fayyad dutifully attends. Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak was a no-show at that meeting and Fayyad was scolded in the Palestinian press, by Fatah and Hamas, for appearing to demean his office. Fayyad, the pragmatist, soldiers on. He also faces ongoing criticism from Fatah—his government contains few Fatah appointees and the Fatah-controlled West Bank Trade Unions have organized strikes against his pensions and tax-collection policies.
At the same time Fayyad strives to maintain credibility with his own public—no easy task and one in which his success is far more modest. For example, the latest poll conducted by Khalil Shikaki’s Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research indicated that Palestinian support for Fayyad’s government was waning. Whereas 29% of respondents said that Fayyad’s government is the legitimate Palestinian government, 34% now believed that the government of Hamas-leader Ismail Haniyeh was the legitimate one. Further, in both the West Bank and Gaza, the perception of public legitimacy was higher for the Haniyeh government than for Fayyad’s—an edge of 32% to 26% in the West Bank, and 37% to 34% in Gaza.
Such examples are part of a broader and predictable trend of the discrediting of Annapolis, the Fatah leadership and their approach. Fayyad is of course identified with that trend and his own numbers suffer accordingly. But I would argue that Fayyad is trying to chart a slightly different course and the Eldar interview is revealing in that respect.
In my own conversations with Fayyad he has struck me as someone who does have a vision and a Palestinian strategy. The center-piece of that strategy is that a Palestinian government must do what it can to advance Palestinian state-building—almost irrespective of anything the Israeli side might be doing to undermine that. It’s a kind of Palestinian version of “ask not what others can do for us, but what we can do for ourselves”. The Palestinian excuses for inaction will always be there—and will often be justified—but the alternatives are armed resistance (not Fayyad’s cup of tea) or paralysis. Fayyad prefers his own version of ‘summud’—steadfastness—to, despite everything, run a government, schools, hospitals, make plans, have a transparent budget…etc.
I doubt it can work or get things very far—the occupation is too obtrusive, to all-consuming, and Israeli policy seems determined to continually vindicate those Palestinians who pursue the armed struggle.
Nevertheless, Fayyad makes some points worth noting in his Ha’aretz interview. Fayyad begins by expressing his gratefulness and delight at the American transfer of $150 million to the PA coffers. He had just received the money from the U.S. Consul-General and described it as a “wonderful day”. The appreciation is understandable but it seems almost rhetorically over-played, out of all proportion. The Palestinian reality is anything but wonderful and $150 million is, well, kind of chopped liver. It is 5% of what Israel receives on an annual basis (and Israel’s GDP is almost 50 times that of the PA’s), or to put it another way, the amount spent every 8 hours on the war in Iraq.
Fayyad does though go on to make three points that seem to challenge current Washington and Jerusalem policy:
1) Quoting Eldar: “Fayyad is in favor of a dialogue with Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, without the prior condition that he recognize Israel or promise to honor the agreements signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization.” Fayyad is not in charge of the current Yemeni-led dialogue, but if this is his position then he should weigh-in to promote it.
2) Fayyad challenges the donor nations not to throw good money after bad. If the closure policy does not change, he seems to be saying, then the donor assistance is pointless: “If you do not allow us to lead an acceptable life, you are wasting your money…without an active and efficient private sector, there is no possibility of creating jobs, and without free movement, the private sector cannot function…the situation in the territories has not changed for the better in recent months, and in some spheres things are even worse. Instead of dismantling checkpoints, Israel has added new ones.”
3) Finally, Fayyad questions the very foundation of the failed peace process logic: “The approach that Israel must stay in the territories if it is to protect its security will lead to our never arriving at security capability. How can I be responsible for security when every other day an Israeli army jeep blocks a street in the heart of Ramallah.”
It has never made much sense to me to predicate diplomatic progress on an occupied people providing security to their occupiers while still under conditions of occupation. Of course Israelis deserve security—but that will be achieved with peace and an end of occupation. I do not think that Fayyad or the Palestinian negotiators are actually challenging this basic, misguided premise of the peace process—the current framing is so assumed, so entrenched. But it is also so unrealistic, illogical, and even dishonest. It should be challenged.