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Fayyad’s Last Stand?

1:40 PM, Sep 25, 2012 • By JONATHAN SCHANZER
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Bir Halek, Ya Fayyad” is not a catchy tune. But the popularity of Palestinian singer Kassem Najar’s song, which translates to “Get A Grip, Fayyad,” is an indication that Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, may be on the way out. Najar, however, is the least of Fayyad’s problems.

Palestinian flag

In recent weeks, protesters in Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus, and beyond have surrounded and threatened him, burned him in effigy, and thrown shoes at his likeness. “Yalla irhal ya Fayyad (“let’s go, Fayyad get out”) was a recurring chant.

While the protests have subsided, Fayyad’s fate still hangs in the balance. His position is weak because he lacks the political machinery and street-level support to withstand his enemies’ efforts to undermine him. A former Fayyad advisor told me that his former boss has received “a flood of phone calls from the State Department and Capitol Hill,” imploring him to stand firm. Nonetheless, he concedes that the prime minister’s American supporters can do nothing for him “on the ground.”

Fayyad knows full well that Palestinian politics is a blood sport. In an act of ironic defiance, he posted the Najar song on his own Facebook page. The embattled premier has also announced that he is prepared to step aside. But he’s not going down without a fight. Recently he announced that his government would reduce fuel prices and cut the value added tax, two of the issues that first sparked the protests. Fayyad also announced cuts to high-ranking officials’ salaries and budgets. 

However, it has become clear that these protests will not end with cost-cutting measures. The PA is under the gun amid an economic crisis stemming from rising fuel prices, a precipitous drop-off in foreign assistance, and endemic corruption that drives down private enterprise, spurs capital flight, and decreases government collection. The high cost of maintaining side-by-side administrations in the West Bank and Gaza (where Hamas wrested control by force in 2007) is also taking its toll on the Palestinian treasury. The resulting decline in government revenues from both taxes and international donations has led to the PA’s recurring inability to cover its civil service salaries.

If Fayyad goes, it would be a setback for U.S. policy, which has staked much of its prestige in the Palestinian arena on Fayyad’s promise as a reformer. The former World Bank official has built a career, first as finance minister and then as prime minister, out of promoting transparency and functional governing institutions. This has earned him accolades in the West, but it has earned him many enemies inside the P.A.

Despite his position, Fayyad is not a Palestinian “insider.” He is not trusted by the rank-and-file. He never joined Fatah, the dominant party whose ranks control everything from the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian National Fund to the global network of Palestinian diplomatic offices and the P.A. government itself.

Fayyad’s crusade against corruption, coupled with his sustained effort to construct real administrative institutions, is part of the reason for his isolation. Over the years, the P.A. has earned a reputation—first under the late Yasser Arafat and then under current president Mahmoud Abbas—for nepotism and corruption. Arafat’s former advisor Mohammed Rachid (recently sentenced in absentia for corruption) recently leveled a series of damning accusations against Abbas and his inner circle. And while Fayyad is certainly not in cahoots with Rachid, for the powerful Palestinian insiders who have established lucrative monopolies under the Abbas regime, Fayyad’s “Mr. Transparency” shtick has become consistently irksome.

That’s why some Palestinians speculate that regime loyalists organized anti-Fayyad rallies. While they were not exactly “rent-a-rallies,” pro-Fatah chants were prevalent. And as Hugh Naylor of The National notes, the anti-Fayyad protests seemed to last a lot longer than other demonstrations decrying the PA and its policies.

Senior Palestinian officials have stood by Fayyad in public, including longtime senior PLO figure Nabil Shaath and even Abbas, But Abbas and Fayyad are both public faces of a failed government, which Palestinians rightfully view has having fallen short of its sole mandate -- to negotiate a final status agreement with Israel and create a Palestinian state.

Abbas recently threatened to quit, but quickly stepped back from the brink. Fayyad may be another story. Some insiders believe that he is trying to buy time before he quits on his own terms. With few leaders prepared to continue his important institution-building program, Fayyad’s departure would be a harsh setback for the Palestinian cause.

Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine (Palgrave 2008). 

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