The End of the Fayyad Era?

AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad

Since becoming secretary of State, indeed even during his confirmation hearings, John Kerry has made it clear that he places high priority on achieving a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has spent the first months of his tenure exploring the possibilities for a reinvigorated peace process, stalled for the last three years. 

Speaking Tuesday at a press conference at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, during his third visit to Israel-Palestine in as many weeks, Secretary Kerry confirmed that initiatives aimed at building the Palestinian economy would be a key component of the effort to restart peace talks. 

“We are going to engage in new efforts, very specific efforts,” Kerry said,  “to promote economic development and to remove some of the bottlenecks and barriers that exist with respect to commerce in the West Bank.” Economic growth, Kerry continued, “will help us be able to provide a climate, if you will, an atmosphere, within which people have greater confidence about moving forward.”

If you think this sounds familiar, you’re right. It’s the approach taken by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad over the past several years. He attempted to reform and develop the Palestinian economy, with a particular focus on greater transparency and accountability, in order create a sense of momentum among Palestinians toward statehood. In one of the surest signs of the Western intelligentsia’s blessing, the doctrine was endowed by The New York Times’ Tom Friedman with its own special title: “Fayyadism … the simple but all-too-rare notion that an Arab leader’s legitimacy should be based not on slogans or rejectionism or personality cults or security services, but on delivering transparent, accountable administration and services.”

Four years later, Fayyadism has foundered on the reality that economic development—genuine, sustainable economic development—is all but impossible amid the conditions of a hostile military occupation that the West Bank continues to experience under Israeli rule. 

Fayyad himself was always cognizant of this. "Some Israeli officials may talk of 'economic peace' as a panacea," he said in a 2010 interview, "but it won't ever be in lieu of what needs to happen politically—the end of occupation."

I met with Fayyad last month, shortly before President Obama’s visit. I’ve had a few opportunities to meet with him in the past in various settings, and have always been struck by the sense of optimism he maintains amid extraordinarily difficult circumstances. But this time, something was different. His frustration was evident.

Fayyad had obviously been stung by the constant criticisms that the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) simply exists to facilitate the continued Israeli occupation. A recent poll found that 55 percent of Palestinians were critical of the P.A.’s security coordination with Israel. In the words of one observer, the criticism has been “personal, somewhat deranged, and very vicious,” especially that appearing in the Arabic-language media. 

Fayyad continues to insist on the P.A.’s role in achieving Palestinian national aspirations, but seemed concerned that, more and more, this premise was being questioned, both domestically and internationally. “Either the P.A. is a key building block of a two-state solution or it isn’t,” he said. “I think it is.” 

Addressing the question of whether his economic reforms had come at the expense of the Palestinian national struggle, he insisted, “I see no tension between making sure people are fed and have jobs and pursuing national goals and aspirations.” After a pause, he continued, “Hamas does; I don’t.” 

Still, the failure of his statehood-building initiative, and the continued impunity with which the Israelis operate in the West Bank are clearly taking their toll. During our meeting, Fayyad was particularly distressed about a recent incident in which a 14-year-old Palestinian boy had been shot for throwing stones near Bethlehem by an Israeli soldier sitting in a concrete guard tower. “Someone should explain to me how a 14-year-old throwing a stone at that tower posed any threat to the soldier who killed him,” Fayyad said, looking at me incredulously.

“I cannot be part of a process that does not frontally address issues of right and wrong.”

It’s evident from the fact that both President Obama and Secretary Kerry made a point to meet with Fayyad individually (to President Mahmoud Abbas’s displeasure) that it’s important to the United States that he continue to be part of the process. Yesterday, Reuters reported, based on anonymous sources, that Fayyad had tendered his resignation, and is awaiting Abbas’s decision. (It’s not the first time such rumors have surfaced; tensions between Abbas and Fayyad are well-known.) And Israel’s Haaretz reported that the Israeli government has refused even the meager confidence-building steps that the U.S. has requested. Neither is particularly propitious, to say the least, for the proposed focus on economic issues.

Some see the focus on those issues as an admission of failure in itself. “The mere fact that they’re speaking the economic language is indicative of the lack of a political will to push the diplomatic process,” said Khaled Elgindy, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who previously worked with the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Negotiations Support Unit in Ramallah. “The whole institution building, economic peace—been there done that. It’s falling apart, it hasn’t worked.”

The P.A. needs economic assistance, Elgindy continued, but “in the absence of a meaningful process, some horizon, then it’s all for naught, you’re just keeping the P.A. on life support. Economics is not going to stabilize the situation.” According to various international bodies like World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Elgindy says, “The single biggest impediment to the Palestinian economy is the occupation, lack of access to Area C [which makes up 61 percent of the West Bank], not being able to access natural resources, inability to build wells, not accessing the Jordan river, the Palestinians inability to move freely in [their] own country.” 

“If you’re not prepared to end the occupation, you’re going to reach a ceiling,” Elgindy concluded, “and I think we’re already at that ceiling.”

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