“Our story is a story of failed leadership” – Salam Fayyad
Fatah leaders, including some of those newly elected to the Fatah Central Committee, pray next to the tomb of the late Fatah leader and founder Yasser Arafat, 13 August 2009. Photo by Omar Rashidi/MaanImages.
By Roger Cohen, NY Times
May 03, 2013
RAMALLAH–The streets of the Palestinian capital in the West Bank are quiet on a Saturday, but Salam Fayyad, who quit as prime minister three weeks ago, is still in his office, dapper as ever in suit and tie — unable to carry on and yet, it seems, not permitted to go. His limbo is a reflection of Palestinian paralysis and disarray.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president with whom Fayyad feuded, knows that he needs his outgoing prime minister’s rigorous competence. He needs Fayyad’s standing with the United States and Europe, major sources of funding for the beleaguered Palestinian Authority. He needs Fayyad’s grip on security.
Yet the Fatah old guard with their sweet deals wants Fayyad gone; Hamas hates him as a supposed American stooge, and Abbas has tired of this U.S.-educated “turbulent priest.” So the president hesitates. He mumbles about a “unity government” with Hamas. He does little. And Fayyad is at his desk when he might be eating sweet pastries with his family.
“Our story is a story of failed leadership, from way early on,” Fayyad tells me. “It is incredible that the fate of the Palestinian people has been in the hands of leaders so entirely casual, so guided by spur-of-the-moment decisions, without seriousness. We don’t strategize, we cut deals in a tactical way and we hold ourselves hostage to our own rhetoric.”
Fayyad first handed in his resignation on Feb. 23. Abbas demurred. President Obama, citing Fayyad’s high reputation with the U.S. Congress and in the region, asked him to stay during a “businesslike” one-on-one meeting (their first) in March. Secretary of State John Kerry followed up with three or four phone calls. To no avail: Fayyad, after almost six years in the job, had had enough of the dance that leads nowhere, the “peace process” that is a mockery of those unhappily twinned words. On April 13 he resigned.
His was a revolution: Of acts over narrative, of state-building over slogans, of pragmatism over posturing. His core thought was simple: “If you look like a state and act like a state nobody in the end is going to deny you that state.” Such was the institutional transformation that the World Bank declared Palestine ready for statehood. As Fayyad says, “We took the exam and passed.”
But the acting prime minister hit a wall. It had two elements: Palestinian division and Israeli intransigence. Which undercut him more? They were both devastating. Of course, they also fed on each other. American dithering did not help.
Hostage to rhetoric? Senior Fatah leader Muhammad Dahlan dropped a bombshell on Palestinian television on Monday, when he insisted that his faction, which controls the PLO, has never recognized Israel and thus has not asked Hamas to do so in the recent Palestinian ‘national unity’ talks in Cairo, March 2010.
Fatah, the major political movement in the West Bank, is a revolutionary party that has exhausted itself; ossified and murky, lacking a popular mandate or a strategy to deliver statehood, headed by a 78-year-old man, Abbas, who did not have the courage to embrace the political program of an outsider, Fayyad, even though that program delivered growth, accountability and security.
Abbas, Moscow-educated, and Fayyad, Texas-educated, never overcame the cultural gulf those educations bequeathed. The can-do approach did not figure in the Soviet curriculum. Abbas declined to leverage Fayyad’s achievements. He refused to use Fayyad’s probity and work ethic as transformative examples. Theirs was a rocky marriage of convenience. Fayyad reckons the party spent more time worrying about what he was doing than solving anything.
“This party, Fatah, is going to break down, there is so much disenchantment,” Fayyad predicts. “Students have lost 35 days this year through strikes. We are broke. The status quo is not sustainable.” He looks at me with a fierce conviction: “In the end it did not matter what any foreign power told me about things changing for the better because I am living it. I have gone through hell before. But it’s enough. This much poison is bound to cause something catastrophic. The system is not taking, the country is suffering. They are not going to change their ways and therefore I must go.”
Then there was the “biggest problem” — the Israeli occupation, never relaxed despite a transformed security situation; in fact intensified through settlement expansion, demolitions, evictions and military incursions even into areas nominally under Palestinian control.
Fayyad, convinced of the need for two states living alongside each other in peace and security, had a double aspect for Israel, the interlocutor from heaven and hell. He was responsible and resolute in his opposition to violence. He was also the Palestinian who undid every convenient caricature of a people wedded to terrorism, corruption and chaos. So Israel never embraced him any more than Fatah. There was no Israeli quid pro quo for Palestinian progress.
“I told President Obama the shack must come before the skyscraper,” Fayyad tells me. “The Israelis have not rolled back the occupation gene. Let’s make sure our Bedouin population in the Jordan Valley has access to drinking water before we discuss final arrangements. This is a right-to-life issue for Palestinians.”
He thinks the United States, now trying to conjure direct negotiations through osmosis rather than any new ideas, should ask Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a straightforward question: What do you mean by a Palestinian state?
From Netanyahu’s few indications, such a state would not include the major Israeli settlement blocs, or have control over the strategic Jordan Valley (some 25 percent of the West Bank). All of greater Jerusalem would remain Israeli. Palestine would be demilitarized.
“A state of leftovers is not going to do it,” Fayyad declares.
But is Netanyahu, a man of Likud who opposed the late Yitzhak Rabin’s Oslo compromise, not convinced deep in himself of the need to hold on to all of Eretz Israel (a biblical term widely used to refer to the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, encompassing all of the West Bank)? And are there not ministers in his new government, including Naftali Bennett, the economics minister, who enjoy dismissing the very idea of Palestine as a complete joke?
Well, Fayyad muses, perhaps the Israeli prime minister needs to say something like this to Israelis: “Yes, it is true we have a contract with God Almighty who gave us the land, but there happen to be 4.4 million other people on this land who want to exercise their right to self-determination, so perhaps we can adjust the divine contract a little.”
That won’t happen, of course. What will? Fayyad calls the new Obama administration initiative “high-risk.” Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to ease into Israeli-Palestinian negotiations buttressed by economic initiatives like tourism developments on the Dead Sea. But from a Palestinian standpoint, there seems to be little that would improve human conditions — deliver water, stop settler violence, end demolitions — and little to stop Netanyahu simply running the clock down again.
“Israel says no this, no that, and it’s taken as a foregone conclusion,” Fayyad says. “There’s nothing to underpin the U.S. initiative. So how can you invest in it?”
Despite his skepticism, Fayyad believes Palestinians do not have a moment to lose in the push for statehood. The essential missing ingredient is unity. There has to be one government in the West Bank (now controlled by Fatah) and Gaza (controlled by Hamas). “Let’s be clinical,” he says. “We are not going to have a state unless we are united first.”
The essential precondition for that, he says, is a “security doctrine based on nonviolence.” Hamas must irrevocably renounce violence. Then there would be “conditions for takeoff that would not be perfect, but when did the perfect ever prevail?”
A unity government could get on with managing day-to-day business and, above all, preparing the national elections needed to know where Palestinians actually stand. Seven years without an election is far too long. Neither Fatah nor Hamas rule has any democratic legitimacy. Their positions are untenable even as they cling to power.
The United States and Europe should make holding a Palestinian election a diplomatic priority. Otherwise peace talks are merely chatter over a void. Of course, a unity government — even one that has formally renounced violence — would pose a severe diplomatic dilemma. Hamas is committed in its doctrine to Israel’s destruction.
On balance, it is in the American interest to foster Palestinian unity, provided it is on the basis of the renunciation of violence. There are, after all, members of the Israeli government committed to Palestine’s nonexistence. One does not choose one’s interlocutor in peace talks. The Palestine Liberation Organization has recognized Israel; Abbas, as the P.L.O. leader, can wear that hat in talks. What matters are not slogans but the will to move forward — and for now there is little evidence of such will.
Abbas is stuck. He has appealed for factions to set aside differences and said he wants a unity government to prepare elections. Hamas is cool to the idea. There is talk in Ramallah of his naming a trusted aide, Mohammad Mustafa, the chief executive of the Palestine Investment Fund, to replace Fayyad. There is talk of Abbas nominating himself to replace Fayyad. There is talk of him naming nobody and hoping Fayyad still shows up at the office.
Fayyad tells me he will not allow presidential inertia to keep him in the job. Within three to four weeks he will be gone — but not completely. Despite rumors floated by his enemies of a return to the International Monetary Fund, he will stick around. “I will reflect,” he says, “and if elections come, as they must because they are vital, I will see how best to take part in them.”
Palestinians have reached their “Altalena” moment. After the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948, the extremist Irgun Jewish militant group resisted being folded into the Israel Defense Forces and insisted on receiving weapons being shipped from Marseille aboard the Altalena. A pitched battle ensued; several were killed. Ben Gurion declared: “There cannot be two armies and there cannot be two states.”
Equally, there cannot be two Palestines. One is hard enough. If Hamas will not cede its weapons to Fatah — if the putative state does not, in Weber’s famous definition, have the monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a given territory — there will be no state.
“I resigned my job, that’s all,” Fayyad says. “I am not resigned, even if it pains me additionally when lack of progress is self-inflicted. I will die without changing my mind that we Palestinians can prove the doubters wrong.”
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