Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is quietly changing the rules of the Arab-Israeli conflict with a simple credo: Palestinians have to build their state now and cannot wait for a peace deal with Israel.
He is moving ahead with an ambitious plan to get the Palestinians ready for statehood by August 2011, by trying to build it from the ground up: paving roads, reforming the judiciary, planning new cities.
The US-trained economist has been showered with praise, money and support by America and Europe. Official Israel has said little, though some in Israel express concern that Fayyad is spearheading a Palestinian strategy to bypass negotiations, declare a de facto state and seek international recognition for it.
Fayyad believes success creates its own momentum, that presenting a compelling case for a Palestinian state will make it inevitable. But he stops short of saying the Palestinians would declare independence on their own. (The Palestinian National Council, the legislative body of the PLO, already did so in Algiers in 1988.)
“The thinking was, by around mid-2011, if the political process will not have produced an end to the occupation... the reality of a Palestinian state would force itself on the political process, on the world,” Fayyad said in a recent interview conducted in his motorcade driving through the West Bank.
He has focused in recent months on trying to rekindle enthusiasm among Palestinians disillusioned by years of failed peacemaking.
He is reaching out to them, bypassing the power structures of the Fatah movement of his boss, President Mahmoud Abbas. Fayyad, an independent, delivers a weekly radio address, meets regularly with Palestinian reporters and has hired a consultant to manage his Facebook and Twitter accounts.
And unlike Fatah politicians, who mostly hold court in their offices, he travels to different parts of the West Bank every few days.
Fayyad’s high-profile appearances have shifted attention away from Abbas, who has little to show for five years in office and spends much of his time on diplomatic missions abroad. The 75-year-old Abbas says he won’t seek reelection, and there has been speculation Fayyad might one day seek the presidency.
Fayyad says he is campaigning for a vision, not political office.
Yet the gap between reality and aspirations remains huge.
Fayyad, who was appointed to his post in 2007 by Abbas, only has limited authority over 40 percent of the West Bank, with the rest under full Israeli control. The Gaza Strip is in the hands of Hamas, which drove out the PA in 2007.
And Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu says he will never let go of east Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ hoped-for capital.
Fayyad’s life reflects these contradictions.
He lives in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem. His wife, Bashayer, has permanent residency there as a Jerusalem native. As a West Banker, Fayyad lives in Jerusalem on a visitor’s permit, renewed by Israel every few months.
During his work day in Ramallah, Fayyad often receives foreign dignitaries. On his drive home, he crosses through an IDF checkpoint.
“If I, for a minute, were to think that this is something I have to deal with all my life... then one would think, forget about it, this is just really too bizarre,” says Fayyad, 58. “But it’s a transition. To me, all this is a transition to freedom, to statehood.”
Fayyad’s strategy stands in contrast to the all-or-nothing approach of more traditional Palestinian leaders – and has invited comparisons to Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion.
His approach is a balance of cooperating with Israel and confronting it.
Israel responded to Fayyad’s success in restoring order in West Bank towns by scaling back troop deployments and easing movement restrictions. This enabled the hard-hit Palestinian economy to bounce back a little. The boomlet, along with Fayyad’s transparent spending and his state-building plan, persuaded donor countries to keep sending massive amounts of aid.
However, Fayyad also supports Palestinian grassroots protests against Israel and has pushed to build in the 60% of the West Bank off-limits to Palestinian development.
“Fayyad’s biggest challenge is that he has to walk a tightrope between the coordination with Israel that his statebuilding plan requires and the defiance of Israel that Palestinians demand and toward which they are gravitating,” said Robert Blecher, an analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank.
Israel has given Fayyad high marks for improving security. But several officials have criticized what they interpret as his plan to declare statehood unilaterally.
“I don’t think it will be of any avail,” Minister-without-Portfolio Bennie Begin said. “We’re not going to withdraw because of any statement, even if it is endorsed.”
Some Palestinians warn that Fayyad’s strategy could hurt their case by creating the trappings of statehood without actually achieving it – something they fear Israel could capitalize on by saying a final deal is no longer needed.
However, Fayyad’s appeal in the West Bank is growing.
In a recent outing, Fayyad visited Arura, north of Ramallah, where residents tried to set a Guinness record for the world’s largest dish of musakhan, a local chicken specialty. Thronged by the crowd, Fayyad inspected the huge tray of food in the village square, then carried a plate piled with chicken to his seat and began eating with his fingers.
Men watching from under a tree had mixed views.
Some praised him for coming, saying it’s the first time a senior
official made it to the village. Others said they felt that after years
of failed peace talks and uprisings, Fayyad was the only leader with a
But Moawiya Rimawi, a local engineer, said Fayyad was selling
illusions. “This is just numbing people,” he said. “The Palestinian
Authority has no control over people or territory, so how come we would
be able to have a state in two years?”
Fayyad said he still encounters plenty of skepticism, but that the mood is shifting.
Asked if he believes he is becoming a symbol of hope, he said: “With all modesty, I think so.”