The Visionary: A Palestinian reformer’s downfall.

May 8, 2012

The New Republic:

If you were to pinpoint one moment when it looked as if things just might work out for Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, it would probably be February 2, 2010. That day, Fayyad addressed the annual Herzliya Conference, a sort of Israeli version of Davos featuring high-powered policymakers and intellectuals. It is not a typical speaking venue for Palestinians; yet Fayyad was warmly received. He sat in the front row next to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who—just before Fayyad ascended the stage—whispered into his ear and grasped his hand in what appeared to be a show of genuine affection. When Fayyad reached the blue and white podium, he garnered an enthusiastic round of applause from the hundreds in attendance.

Standing five feet five in a charcoal suit with glasses, frog-like features, and thinning salt-and-pepper hair, Fayyad didn’t appear all that charismatic—and he didn’t sound charismatic, either. He spoke in jargon-laced English with a deep nasal monotone. But what he had to say was dramatic—even revolutionary.

Six months earlier, with decades of negotiations and armed conflict having failed to produce Palestinian independence, Fayyad had proclaimed a bold new strategy: Instead of waiting for Israel to grant them a state, the Palestinians would build it themselves—brick by brick, institution by institution. Fayyad’s “state-building program,” as it was known, had earned praise from the likes of Israeli President Shimon Peres (who called him the “Palestinian Ben Gurion”) and The New York Times’ Tom Friedman (who coined the term “Fayyadism” to describe “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”). Even some right-wing Israeli politicians had spoken favorably of Fayyad, especially when comparing him with Yasir Arafat or Hamas.

More significantly, polls showed that Fayyad was winning over Palestinians—and it was easy to understand why, since his policies were yielding results. With the world still in the throes of the global financial crisis, the West Bank economy had enjoyed two years of double-digit growth. Unemployment had declined as thousands of Palestinians went to work building new schools, health clinics, and government offices. Cities like Ramallah and Jenin, which became war zones during the second Palestinian intifada, had begun to assume an air of normalcy as masked gunmen gave way to newly trained Palestinian police.

At Herzliya, the subdued Fayyad came to life as he spoke of his state-building program. “That exercise that we have embarked on, related to getting ready for statehood, was described by some as a source of concern on grounds that it is—or represents—unilateralism by the Palestinians,” Fayyad said. “And I’m here to tell everyone”—he raised his voice and his arms—“that indeed it is! It is unilateral! As it should be! Because it’s about building a Palestinian state. It’s about getting ready for Palestinian statehood, and the state that is being built here is a Palestinian state. And, if we Palestinians don’t build it, who’s going to build it for us?”

At the time, negotiations had been frozen for more than a year. Yet Fayyad boldly predicted that his program would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state by August 2011. “By then, if in fact we succeed, as I hope we will,” he said, “it’s not going to be too difficult for people looking at us from any corner of the world … to conclude that the Palestinians do indeed have something that looks like a well-functioning state in just about every facet of activity, and the only anomalous thing at the time would be that occupation, which everybody agrees should end anyways. That’s the theory.” As Fayyad finished his speech—saying that his people aspired “to live alongside you in peace, harmony, and security”—several audience members stood up to applaud. For a moment, anyway, just about everyone seemed to be rooting for Salam Fayyad.

LIKE MOST PALESTINIAN leaders, Fayyad spent much of his adult life outside the West Bank—but the similarities end there. While Mahmoud Abbas—the Palestinian Authority’s (P.A.) current president and Fayyad’s boss—followed Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from Jordan to Lebanon to Tunisia during the group’s terrorist days in the 1970s and 1980s, Fayyad was busy earning a series of degrees: getting his B.A. from the American University in Beirut, before moving to Austin, Texas, where he got an MBA from St. Edward’s University and a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Texas. Palestinian politicians, like Israeli ones, tend to be tough guys. Fayyad, by contrast, is bookish and nerdy. He has a habit of nodding—almost bowing—when he shakes hands with people.

By all accounts, Fayyad had no designs on public life. After three years teaching economics at Jordan’s Yarmouk University, he took a job with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in St. Louis and, in 1996, became the body’s manager in the West Bank. When the hopeful atmosphere of the 1990s degenerated into a wave of suicide bombings and Israeli military reprisals in 2001, Fayyad was serving as the Arab Bank’s local director. As pressure intensified on Arafat to appoint a finance minister in the spring of 2002, Fayyad emerged as the logical candidate. “Everybody had a very high regard for him,” Elliott Abrams, who served in various senior posts in the Bush administration, told me. “We were constantly trying to raise money for the Palestinians. And what we heard from a number of Arab donors was, ‘Why should I give them money? He only steals it’—he being Arafat—so the advent of Fayyad was very important for us.”

“Of course, he had a particular appeal to President Bush because of his Texas links,” Abrams added. “People who’d met Arafat were very impressed by dealing with almost anyone else—for example, [Abbas], a guy who wore a suit and a tie, not a fake military uniform, and who was not in favor of violence. Fayyad was another step beyond that—he had a Ph.D. from the United States, he was a genuine economist, worked at the IMF. So he really talked our language.”

The Israelis also took a liking to Fayyad, who—in the rare moments when he spoke publicly about the conflict—unambiguously condemned terrorism against Israelis. Then–Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon “viewed him very seriously,” recalls Danny Ayalon, a former Sharon adviser who is now Israel’s deputy foreign minister. “He saw him as a nation-builder, as opposed to the rest of the Palestinian leadership that were nation-destroyers and wanted to destroy the state of Israel.” Fayyad even became friends with some high-ranking Israeli officials, including Sharon’s chief of staff, Dov Weisglass. At the wedding of Weisglass’s daughter, Fayyad sat next to Sharon during the ceremony and struck up a long conversation.

It wasn’t just the Israelis and Americans who trusted Fayyad. In the West Bank and Gaza, he began earning a reputation as the “Mr. Clean” of Palestinian politics. He put the P.A.’s budget online and arranged for Palestinian security forces to be paid via direct deposit, in order to minimize the opportunities for corruption. After Arafat’s death in late 2004 and Abbas’s subsequent victory, some officials in Fatah— the secular-nationalist movement that had dominated Palestinian politics for decades—hoped that Fayyad would join their party. But instead, in the 2006 parliamentary elections, Fayyad teamed up with longtime Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi on a slate of secular liberals. Their Third Way Party won two seats in the 132-member Palestinian Legislative Council and quickly disbanded. “We did well given that we campaigned for one month only,” Ashrawi told me recently at her office in Ramallah, a day before I interviewed Fayyad. “The reason that not just the Third Way, but many of the left-wing parties, the smaller factions, didn’t do well was because of the extreme, extreme polarization. … I’m sure if the situation was more relaxed and calmer, and if we didn’t face all these tremendous challenges, then people would sit back and say, ‘OK, now we need the reformers, the institution-builders, the democrats to take over.’ But, when they saw this polarization, it became either-or. It’s not, ‘Let’s look for the third option.’ It became, ‘If Hamas takes over, then the Islamic political parties have taken over and we don’t want that,’ or, ‘If Fatah takes over, then we will have more of the corruption.’”

In June 2007, the struggle between the two factions—then serving in a tenuous unity government—exploded into all-out civil war when Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip. In response, Abbas dismissed the Hamas prime minister and picked Fayyad to lead an emergency technocratic government. Abbas “thought that to maintain national unity and to maintain hope of reconciliation, that the prime minister should not be Fatah,” Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator and a close Abbas confidant, told me. Fayyad was a logical choice in another respect: He was uniquely qualified to restore the international aid and Israeli security cooperation that had been suspended following Hamas’s election victory.

When Fayyad first came into office, Palestinians were still reeling from the second intifada. As bloody as that period was for Israelis—some 1,000 died in suicide bombings and military campaigns from 2000 to 2005—it was even more so for Palestinians: More than 5,000 died; the P.A.’s economy, not to mention its infrastructure, was devastated; and lawlessness reigned in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Now Gaza was lost to Hamas, but the West Bank, at least, was under Fayyad’s control. And, in his first couple of years in office, he set about stabilizing the territory. His government banned the public display of weapons. It also oversaw the creation of a new, streamlined security force that trained in Jordan under three-star American General Keith Dayton. “Dayton told us that the person who really was making it possible to train the security and police forces and then keep them honest, keep them dedicated to their task, was Fayyad,” Abrams told me. “It was Fayyad who was keeping them from being a Fatah hit squad. It was Fayyad whom they could turn to if somebody gave what looked to be an illegal order. It was Fayyad who actually went to the graduation ceremonies and gave them a kind of pep talk about their job being not to fight Israel, but to help build a Palestinian state from the ground up.”…

Read it all.

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