The Fayyad affair: A symptom of a diplomatic disease

To those of us who know Fayyad well, the attack comes against the one regional leader who least deserves the smear.

Then-US president Barack Obama watches a cultural event alongside then-Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad in Ramallah, 2013 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Then-US president Barack Obama watches a cultural event alongside then-Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad in Ramallah, 2013
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When Salam Fayyad was serving as the Palestinian Authority’s prime minister, he memorably drew universal praise for his vision and courage when he exhorted Palestinians to build rather than complain. His two-year plan setting forth the framework on which to create the infrastructure and institutions necessary to support statehood infused Palestinians with a positive energy, both in attitude and deed, that had been in short supply until then.
After Fayyad was reportedly forced out by PA President Mahmoud Abbas over economic differences in 2013, Fayyad continued to focus on infrastructure, albeit from the private sector, involving himself in more than a thousand projects.
So it is that in the region that never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity, Fayyad’s appointment by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to head his peacemaking team for Libya was quashed by an American-backed Israeli demand that Fayyad be disqualified from performing a mission for which no one really believes he’s not a good fit. Worse yet, it is a veto that can be withdrawn if an Israeli politician gets a commensurate $250,000-a-year position.
Regardless of what else might be said about Fayyad, his moment of bringing near-consensus to this contentious region’s most diverse schools of thought will forever typify his already considerable lifetime achievements.
Former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro termed the decision to block Fayyad’s appointment “stunningly dumb.” Lest the ambassador be accused of bias, it is illustrative to search one’s memory for an example of a similar pan-partisan outpouring in a situation where no world leader had died. While the present political environment demands criticism of the new US administration by all who are not self-proclaimed right-wingers, telling is the growing array of conservative thinkers willing to be blunt and critical of the administration on the Fayyad issue.
To those of us who know Fayyad well, the attack comes against the one regional leader who least deserves the smear.
A leading Israeli newspaper trotted out a 2013 quote by Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer, a leading conservative thinker known to be as close as any to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, lauding Fayyad, whom he touted as “a partner for peace.”
Also on the Right, The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens, himself a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, added his admiration, tweeting “Even I like Fayyad.” The tweet by Vivian Bercovici, the former Canadian ambassador to Israel appointed by the (conservative) leader known to have one of the closest personal relationships with Netanyahu, former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, was quoted by Haaretz: “This is an odd move by [US Ambassador to the UN] Nikki Haley. Does she know anything about him?” Person by person, article by article, publication by publication, the point was made: Fayyad is both worthy and capable of carrying out the Libyan mandate of Guterres, who selected him from among a number of candidates. The Media Line has learned that the choice was made amid significant competition, after which Fayyad was deemed to be the man most likely to succeed.
When Guterres chose Fayyad, while apparently basing his selection on the former PA prime minister’s stellar reputation among the international community, it seems he neglected to take into account the region’s penchant for self-inflicted wounds even in the course of diplomacy. Indeed, although it was American-educated Fayyad, the veteran of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank whose ascension to the prime ministry provided the requisite fiscal confidence without which no Western nation would have donated to the fledgling quasi-government headed by Yasser Arafat, that appointment was made before international diplomacy fused Israel and the PA into an indivisible political unit that demands equal attention for the other if the occasion arises to do business with one.
Yet the phenomenon is fueled by the parties themselves.
While the PA has staked out the UN as its proving ground for a “Plan B” approach to statehood, Netanyahu has responded in kind, telling his weekly cabinet meeting that “the time has come for reciprocity in the UN’s relations with Israel, and free gifts cannot be constantly given to the Palestinian side. The time has come for positions and appointments to be made to the Israeli side as well. Should there be an appropriate appointment, we will consider it.”
In the course of numerous conversations with Fayyad both during his tenure as prime minister and afterward, he spoke of the thousands of infrastructure projects he completed in the Palestinian territories and, by extension, would bring to Libya. In 2010, he spoke of a celebration marking the thousandth completion.
Yet the nixing of the Fayyad appointment is another of the Middle East’s patented stalemates and loss of talent for a job that needs to be done.
From the Israeli perspective, former MK Dr. Einat Wilf told The Media Line that who serves as the UN special envoy to Libya is “none of our business.” But regarding the UN itself, Wilf argues that “if the government of Israel is only legitimized in the UN with the Palestinians, it is a stain on the UN. Israel is and should be considered a legitimate country in the UN, regardless of Palestinians.”
Without doubt, the Fayyad appointment and its ensuing blowback is symptom, not disease. But such gross and unsubtle manifestations of the underlying malady are nevertheless useful for the clarity they provide.
For the PA, it is a clear indication that its end run around the negotiation process is not without diplomatic cost. Here, the loss of an opportunity for one of its most accomplished statesmen to be the peacemaker in Libya is arguably a cost with a value worth scores of memberships in UN-affiliated agencies.
For Israel, being seen as insisting upon a quid pro quo because a Palestinian national is selected for a prestigious position that has no nexus to the Jewish state opens it to the sort of accusations that inevitably accompany it to the international stage, epithets far worse than “petty” or “demanding.”
As Wilf said, “If the person is good for the job, it should be based on merit, not linkage.”
The writer is president and CEO of The Media Line news agency and founder of the Mideast Press Club.