Can Fayyad Make A Difference?


The Western-backed Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, was interviewed earlier this month on ABC Radio National’s Saturday Extra. Host Geraldine Doogue opened her conversation with him with the following words:

"I’d like to introduce you now to a man you may not have heard too much about in Australia, but he is really coming into his political prime, and earning himself considerable international respect, because his basic day job is super-tough…[He’s] neither from the Fattah or Hamas parties, and he comes to this post via an unusual route, with an unusual suite of skills. He has a doctorate in economics from the University of Texas; he’s worked for the World Bank and as a private banker; and some argue that even the Israelis are enchanted by him, and he certainly seems to be presiding over some much-wanted economic successes."

Such effusive praise is typical of the Western media’s response to Fayyad. Newsweek recently profiled Fayyad but included a telling caveat: "Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s unorthodox approach is winning plaudits from the West. That could be his undoing".

The fact that some people see Fayyad as a source of hope for the Middle East is itself a reflection of how jammed the situation really is. This week’s brief meeting in New York between Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas will only confirm to sceptical Palestinians that "engagement" with Israel leads to never-ending meetings and photo opportunities. Hamas makes this exact point and they’re right. Israel refuses to cease settlement building and Washington is apparently unwilling to enforce Obama’s desire for a "settlement freeze". No movement on Middle East peace talks actually means an ever-expanding occupation. The Palestinians lose every time.

Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy has even issued a challenge to Israel to conduct a referendum on the occupation on the grounds that while "most of [the Israeli public]says it supports the two-state solution … at the same time it votes for right-wing, centrist or pseudo-leftist parties that have no intention whatsoever of ending the occupation."

Indeed, the vast gulf between rhetoric and reality has never been greater. While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to announce the expansion of illegal colonies in the West Bank, the international community appears impotent to stop it. A European diplomat, quoted in JTA in early September, said: "It’s difficult to understand what the Israelis want when they announce that kind of thing. But it shouldn’t derail the process".

Into the midst of this deadlock, Fayyad has recently announced that he will declare a Palestinian state in 2011 regardless of political progress with Israel. Reflecting this, Palestinian and European Union sources told Haaretz last week that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians will resume shortly, "on the basis of an understanding that the establishment of a Palestinian state will be officially announced in two years … talks will initially focus on determining the permanent border between Israel and the West Bank".

Fayyad has widely discussed building Palestinian institutions to convince the world that his population is ready for statehood. But there is absolutely no evidence that Israel will accept such a unilateral move. Furthermore, ongoing settlement building makes any viable state close to impossible.

But perhaps these practical obstacles are not so important, as Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab argues. "By offering a plan for a de facto Palestinian state, irrespective of the success or failure of any possible peace process, Fayyad has laid the groundwork. Some see his plan as little more than naive optimism and predict it will go the way of so many others. Others see in it a practical blueprint that will lay the administrative foundation for statehood.

"Regardless, for Palestinian political unilateralism to stand any chance of success, the ideological and physical division between Islamists and nationalists and the Gaza Strip and the West Bank must first be bridged. Without unity, there will be little incentive for Israel or the international community to view Palestinian political unilateralism as a serious measure."

But according to Hasan Abu Nimah and Ali Abunimah, writing recently in the Jordan Times, Fayyad’s "vision" is an illusion which appeals only to those desperate to please the occupying power:

"What is really taking shape in the West Bank today is a police state, where all sources of opposition or resistance — real or suspected — to either the PA regime, or the Israeli occupation are being systematically repressed by US-funded and trained Palestinian ‘security forces’ in full coordination with Israel. Gaza remains under tight siege because of its refusal to submit to this regime…

"Many in the region and beyond hoped the Obama Administration would be a real honest broker, at last bringing American pressure to bear on Israel, so that Palestinians might be liberated. But instead, the new administration is acting as an efficient laundry service for Israeli ideas; first they become American ones, and then a Palestinian puppet is brought in to wear them."

During my July visit to the West Bank and Gaza, I heard countless allegations of US-trained Fatah soldiers abusing and torturing opponents, including Hamas members. Washington — and Canberra — ignore these stories.

Although there is evidence to suggest that some Palestinians are supportive of the PA’s strategy — anything to make life under occupation more bearable — facts on the ground are moving in the opposite direction. These facts present some questions that Fayyad won’t be able to ignore. For example, even if his plan gets much further, how can an effective democracy be built under occupation? Why would the Israelis trust the Palestinians to exercise control over their lives? How keen are the Western-funded Palestinian elites to please their masters and whitewash the occupation? How meaningful is Fayyad’s talk of ending the occupation when he cannot even ensure the free the day-to-day movement of his own people?

Another interesting factor in the mix is the growing rumour that Fayyad is positioning himself to challenge Abbas in forthcoming elections — although he lacks a political base. He would probably garner Western support for such a move, but whether the Palestinians would reward a man who has made no progress in dismantling the occupation is questionable.

In support of the PA’s strategy under Abbas and Fayyad, some observers point to the fact that the Palestinian West Bank economy is growing, and there have been definite improvements to the lives of Palestinians on the West Bank. During my recent visit I noted fewer Israeli checkpoints and increased freedom of movement for Palestinians.

All of that might suggest to observers that the current PA strategy is correct. But while nobody should begrudge the improvement of Palestinian lives, without justice and viability, the leadership’s acceptance of the scraps of Israeli "generosity" will only lead to further strife. The plan is doomed to fail, as long as Palestinians remain one of the most aid-dependent people on the planet.

Gideon Levy told In These Times this month that the, "[Israeli] public has grown indifferent to the suffering of Palestinians under occupation" and the vast majority has no interest in knowing about IDF abuses in the occupied territories.

Wishing these difficulties away will not suffice — and nor will hoping the Palestinians simply accept whatever Bantustan they are given by the international community.

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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.