Palestinian Authority’s caretaker government prime minister, Salam Fayyad, is highly respected within many segments of Palestinian society, and not only in the West Bank. He is one of the few Palestinian political leaders who have been able to avoid allegations of corruption; probably by simply being honest and holding himself and others under his jurisdiction accountable. Political pundits, journalists, public opinion trendsetters, and ordinary Palestinians have varying views about Fayyad, but the one allegation he managed to avoid is corruption. He is leading the efforts of improving the Palestinian economy in the West Bank in spite of and under Israeli occupation. He is also leading the efforts of preparing Palestinian institutions to be ready to assume full responsibility of governance when/if the objective of establishing a Palestinian state is realized. Fayyad is on record that he predicts the establishment of a Palestinian state by the middle of 2011. He seems to be the only one who believes that “prophecy”, and he says it publicly without a hint of hesitation. In a recent interview, he told the Financial Times: “If we Palestinians believe that the state will happen, it will happen. If we want it, it will happen.” He projects such a remarkable confidence as if other players would have no choice but to follow the lead of the Palestinian people, “if we want it, it will happen.”
Mr. Fayyad’s strength comes from the respect he commands and the credibility he has been able to build with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, donor nations (including USA and European countries), the Arab League, the World Bank, United Nations institutions, and most NGOs working in the Palestinian territories. His reputation of being a corruption-free prime minister is growing within the Palestinian people, and is bringing him more support among ordinary Palestinians, especially in the West Bank, but this approval rating in his favour is moving very, very, slowly.
Mr. Fayyad’s weakest points are: (a) he does not have a strong popular base; (b) the bulk of the two largest Palestinian political parties – Fatah and Hamas – “hate” him, because of political considerations and also because he cut their special entitlements and privileges everywhere he could; (c) the stronger Palestinian police presence, under his watch, caused him dearly in terms of popularity among other political parties that suffered from his government’s security activities, especially security coordination with the Israeli occupying forces; (d) his preparations of state institutions totally exclude Gaza, where he and his government have no presence beyond paying salaries to employees to stay home and not participate in the Hamas government in Gaza; and (e) while he has proven himself to be a successful economic leader in the West Bank, Salam Fayyad has not succeeded in gaining enough popular support to claim political leadership of the Palestinian struggle.
Fayyad’s preparatory work, including that which he calls “building state institutions,” is premised on either successful negotiations with the Israeli government for the establishment of a Palestinian state or alternatively a United States’ intervention to force the hand of Israel into accepting the two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He is hedging his bets – with all that he has – on either of those two possibilities materializing. If neither does, Fayyad will face a situation where he will have no future in Palestinian politics.
The facts, however, lead to a conclusion that is inconsistent with Mr. Salam Fayyad’s vision. President Mahmoud Abbas wants a Palestinian state that is viable, contiguous, and substantially along the 1949 armistice line, including the most valuable prize of them all; East Jerusalem as its capital (i.e. essentially, the June 4, 1967 territories). Anything less would mean the end of Abbas as leader of the Palestinian Liberation movement; his own political party – Fatah – would not permit less than that minimum. To Benjamin Netanyahu, considering such a proposal could mean the end of his own political career, for his ruling coalition would collapse if he signals flexibility on discussing such proposal. Netanyahu’s government would not limit expansion of settlements, let alone stopping or reversing settlement activities. Israeli public opinion has, in the recent few years, shifted towards less acceptance of the idea of establishing a Palestinian state, and Netanyahu and his ruling coalition partners pander to those sentiments for obvious reasons. Due to their respective domestic political calculations, Netanyahu and Abbas do not see eye to eye on any of the so-called final status issues. The Obama Administration, that is facing Congressional elections next November, would likely to do anything but apply pressure on the Israeli government before the end of this election year. No serious observer expects the Obama administration to do anything that would upset the American Israel Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC), for fear of the almost inevitable negative impact on the Democrats’ fortunes in the November Congressional elections. Therefore, it would not take a brain surgeon to figure out that the Obama administration would simply let the ship sail on inertia until after the November elections. Another relevant fact is the lack of any serious movement on the internal Palestinian reconciliation, without which Gaza would be completely out of any deal between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). And any possible progress on that front would by necessity mean less flexibility for Abbas in his negotiations with the Israelis.
These facts point to the status quo being maintained through the summer and fall of 2010. Netanyahu’s government would probably take a more hard-line position in the “direct negotiations” that are about to start between the PLO and the Israeli government. It would be safe to say that Netanyahu would not feel an ounce of pressure from the Obama administration, at least until the end of this year, which would result in Israel offering nothing acceptable to the PLO.
So, the odds are stacking high against Mr. Fayyad’s declared objective; i.e. to have the Palestinian state established by the middle of 2011. Mr. Fayyad might end up having his institutions ready for a state that does not exist. Those negative odds appear to be working against Mr. Fayyad’s vision, at least until President Obama’s next State of the Union Address in January 2011.
The question is: What will happen then?
Hope is the stuff from which life is made!