The effort to build a modern Palestinian state that will live in peace with Israel suffered a great setback last week when pressure from both Fatah and Hamas forced the resignation of the Palestinian Authority prime Minister, Salam Fayyad.
Fayyad, born in 1952 in the northern West Bank, is an economist with a Ph.D. from the University of Texas. He had worked for the IMF as its representative to the PA, and then for Arab Bank, before becoming finance minister in June 2002. The timing was not coincidental: Yasser Arafat was under severe pressure from the United States and other key donors to end the amazing corruption and the support for terrorism that marked his reign. In an April 2002 speech, President George W. Bush had attacked Arafat as a terrorist; two months later he said flatly that “Peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership.” Bush insisted that “a Palestinian state will require a vibrant economy, where honest enterprise is encouraged by honest government.” Feeling the pressure, Arafat reacted by asking Fayyad to take on the finance ministry, where he began the immense task of attacking corrupt officials and practices in Arafat’s squalid satrapy. Needless to say, this earned him no friends among corrupt Fatah Party and PLO officials who had long gorged on foreign aid funds. Fayyad’s whole style was Western, dedicated to efficiency, productivity, and clean government. He put the entire PA budget, hitherto hidden behind clouds of rhetoric and dissimulation, on the Internet.
Fayyad resigned to run for office in the January 2006 parliamentary elections, where his independent party—he has never been a member of Fatah— won only two seats and Hamas won a majority. In June 2007, after the Hamas coup in Gaza, President Abbas dismissed the Hamas-led government and appointed Fayyad prime minister, where he has now served six years—under assault from old-timers in Fatah and from Hamas militants the entire time.
From Fatah cronies of Arafat in the old days and of Abbas more recently, there is an understandable and venal desire to return to the pre-Fayyad period when billions in foreign assistance dollars provided good livings to corrupt officials. And from Fatah and Hamas both, there is opposition to Fayyad’s positive approach to state building. Palestinian political culture, from the days of the Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini before the Second World War to those of Arafat, Fatah, and Hamas more recently, has been oppositional: at the center is “resistance” to Israel, especially armed resistance. Fayyad’s greatest weakness as a political figure in the Palestinian territories is that he has never shot at Israelis or spent time in an Israeli prison. He is, instead, a builder—of institutions and ultimately he hopes of a modern state. In 2009, speaking about the Oslo accords sixteen years after their signing—and their failure to produce much, he said this: “After 16 years why not change the discourse? We have decided to be proactive, to expedite the end of the occupation by working very hard to build positive facts on the ground, consistent with having our state emerge as a fact that cannot be ignored. This is our agenda, and we want to pursue it doggedly. It is empowering to even think that way.” No talk about Zionist conspiracies or the armed struggle, just empowerment and “positive facts on the ground.”
For this reason Fayyad opposed Abbas’s move in the United Nations to get “Palestine” admitted as a state. As he put it in 2010, Palestinian statehood “is not something that is going to happen to the Israelis, nor something that is going to happen to the Palestinians. It is something that will grow on both sides as a reality... creating a belief that this was inevitable through the process, a convergence of two paths…from the bottom up and the top down.” On another occasion I heard him remind his listeners that Israel was not created in 1948 but simply recognized that year; it was created over decades by Zionist efforts, and that’s how a Palestinian state has to be created. This was the essence of what became known as Fayyadism, a bottom-up and entirely non-violent approach to state-building that assumed Palestinians must build a state, institution by institution, if they want to have one. The progress has been considerable, not only in creating embryonic state institutions like finance, health, interior, education, and other ministries, but in creating a national police force. Largely trained by the United States at a center in Jordan, these police officers reported to the interior minister and ultimately to Fayyad, who told them they were there neither to attack Israel nor to protect Fatah, but to keep the peace and help build a state. Cooperation with Israel’s police and military forces was extensive.