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Salam Fayyad and the Palestinian Political Scene

Salam Fayyad Palestine
Salam Fayyad, March 2010 Photo Stephen Sizer

When will Salam Fayyad make his comeback on the Palestinian political stage? In mid-April 2013, Fayyad resigned his position as Palestinian prime minister over a disagreement with President Mahmoud Abbas. In mid-2007, Fayyad had been named by Abbas to form a cabinet, shortly after the fall of Hamas’s government and the eruption of the strife between Hamas and Fatah.

Fayyad was born in 1952 in the village of Deir el-Ghusoun, near the city of Tulkarm. He earned a PhD in economics from the University of Texas in 1986 and is called in Palestine “the son of international organizations,” as he has worked for years for the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

In 2002, the late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat was pressured by the United States and the European Union into reforming the Palestinian political system. It was then that Fayyad entered Palestinian politics as minister of finance in Mahmoud Abbas’s government for six months and then in Ahmed Qurei’s government until 2005. Fayyad resigned from that position and ran in the legislative elections as part of an independent list that was called at the time “the Third Way,” in reference to the list’s independence, as it belonged to neither Fatah nor the Islamist Hamas. His list won two seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council, one for himself and one for Hanan Ashrawi.

In February 2007, after the Mecca Agreement between Fatah and Hamas, Fayyad was once again named minister of finance in the national-unity government formed by Hamas’s Ismael Haniyeh. That government, however, lasted only a short time and was dissolved by the president as the Fatah-Hamas rift reopened. Abbas named Fayyad to form an emergency government, but, in violation of Palestinian law, Fayyad’s government never gained the Legislative Council’s vote of confidence.

Fayyad headed three consecutive Palestinian governments between 2007 and 2013 and was won the trust of the United States, the European Union, international organizations, and, to a certain extent, Israel. During his time in office, the US and several European governments agreed to increase their annual financial aid to the Palestinian Authority.

As a leader, Fayyad differed from his predecessors. His speeches were never passionate or defiant. He always appeared to be a professional politician, focused primarily on filling public needs such as schools and clean water. From his early days in office, Fayyad showed that he cared about building government institutions. In 2009 he presented a political-economic plan based on ending the occupation, securing the right of self-determination, and achieving a two-state solution. In that plan, Fayyad was focused on building a Palestinian economy free of Israel’s hegemony. The plan also stated the Palestinian government’s commitment to the popular peaceful resistance and to combating corruption and nepotism.

Fayyad’s plan became known later as “Fayyadism,” a new approach to government, completely different from the previous Palestinian leadership methods, which had always supported either armed revolution or Islamist resistance.

Fayyad’s approach was focused on laying the foundation for economic development by building efficient infrastructure and public services. The idea was to help the population, especially those who live behind the Israeli wall, to make the best of their difficult living conditions.

Fayyad’s political approach reached a major turning point in mid-2009. Besides his integrated political, social, and economic programme, known as the Thousand Projects Plan, Fayyad also promoted nonviolent resistance, one example of which was Fayyad’s insistence on harvesting olives from Palestinian farms under Israeli control. This approach earned him the respect of Western politicians.

The Conflict with the Palestinian Leadership

Fayyad’s achievements were reflected in three international reports issued in 2011 (by the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund in 2011), indicating that Palestinians were prepared to establish their own state. These three reports highlighted Fayyad’s ability to achieve what others failed to do.

Fatah leaders did not like Fayyad’s international popularity, feeling increasingly sidelined by his activities. Both Fatah and Hamas wanted Fayyad out; they were concerned with his local success and his increasing popularity internationally.

Fatah leaders launched a wave of criticism of Fayyad’s government, accusing him of burdening the Palestinian Authority with debt. The real reason behind the criticism was that Fayyad’s government consisted of professionals and technocrats who could not be controlled by Fatah to serve its own interests. Fatah therefore urged its followers into the streets to protest against Fayyad and his government.

Fayyad several times expressed his intention to resign. Under continuous pressure from Fatah and the popular protests, Fayyad eventually made up his mind to resign for good.

Fayyad is still on the Palestinian political scene, having established a civil-society organization called “Palestine of Tomorrow.” Through his group, which is concerned with social development and the environment, Fayyad has come much closer to the people, freed of the restraints he was under when he was a government official.

In fact, that closeness to the people was exactly what Fayyad lacked when he was prime minister. The population and his opponents always viewed him as someone who came from another planet to be their prime minister. No other leaders knew him closely and were therefore often skeptical of his loyalty. Many believed that this “son of international organizations” was advancing external agendas that were not in Palestine’s best interests.

Several analysts believe that the future holds a major role for Fayyad, perhaps the prime ministry or even the presidency of a Palestinian state. They believe that Fayyad’s method of leadership could appeal to the large segment of Palestinian society that rejects the policies of both Fatah and Hamas. Recent surveys have shown that most Palestinians “have no political opinion.” According to the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center and the Palestinian Survey Center, that portion of the population comprised more than 30 percent of Palestinians, and the Near East Center for Consultations says that those who have no political opinion and would not vote in any coming elections comprise 38 percent of Palestinians.

Several factors increase the chances of his assuming a major role in the future. The infighting between Fatah and Hamas has weakened their popular bases and helped Fayyad to strengthen his. Fatah’s weakness over the past few years makes defections more likely, once Abbas (b. 1935) is out of the picture. Hamas, on the other hand, will probably be left out of future political arrangements because of its unacceptability to the international community and its control by hardliners. The Palestinian leftists have proved unable to achieve anything on the ground.

In July 2014, during the assault on Gaza, Fayyad delivered a lecture at the Washington-based Atlantic Council in which he laid out his view on how to break the “vicious circle” of Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He explained how diplomacy serves best to solve the long-stalled issue and how to repair the Oslo Agreement, which is the framework of the Palestinian-Israeli relationship.

His views have raised concerns among Fatah leaders: he seems increasingly likely to inherit Abbas’s position. The Fatah-dominated security apparatus is already harassing Fayyad’s “Palestine of Tomorrow,” in an attempt to clip his wings.

In his article “The Road to a State Starts in Gaza” (8 March 2015), Fayyad provided a comprehensive political insight into all critical Palestinian issues. He wrote about how Palestinian weakness can be turned into an effective weapon against Israeli strength. He stressed that it is important to restore the peace process, given the regional tide of radicalism. He also stressed the importance of starting with Gaza, in order to end the suffering of its people, bring the Gaza Strip back to “the Palestinian home”, and achieve sovereignty. Fayyad also called for implementing the “unified leadership” that was agreed earlier as a solution to the division between Gaza and the West Bank, and for reactivating the long-suspended Legislative Council, in order that the Palestinian government can do its job properly.

The article came a few days after the Central Council’s meeting, in which Fayyad took part. His article was therefore interpreted as a response to the Council’s decisions, which confined itself to traditional thinking and proposed no new strategies.

What remains to be seen is not whether Salam Fayyad will return to the political scene, but when and in what capacity.

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