Fayyad's Road to Palestine
RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — I spoke to the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, for 90 minutes, and the word he uttered most often, by far, was “security.” As in, “The absence of security has been our undoing.”
When Palestinian leaders are talking about their self-inflicted undoing, as well as the undoing inflicted on them by Israel, things may be starting to move.
His aim, Fayyad told me, was an end to the “security pluralism” that produced a “state of chaos and militias.” It was this chaos, he said, that fueled the violent schism between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, undermining past Palestinian attempts to build the rudiments of statehood.
Fayyad, 58, is a small, precise, U.S.-educated man with a very ordered mind. He builds long, intricate sentences with an academic bent and is given to words like “axiomatic” or “purview.” For almost a decade his home was the World Bank; he’s hardly a political firebrand. Armed struggle has never been his thing. But right now he is a man with a mission.
That mission is a two-year program, begun last August, to ready Palestine for statehood by the second half of 2011. It represents a break with past Palestinian failure in that it espouses nonviolence — “an ironclad commitment, not a seasonal thing,” he said — and is focused on prosaic stuff like building institutions (police, schools, a justice system, roads and an economy) rather than exalted proclamations.
The program has secured explicit backing from the “Quartet” of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, the group that last month called for “a settlement, negotiated between the parties within 24 months, that ends the occupation which began in 1967 and results in the emergence of an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel.”
The world’s 24 months and Fayyad’s timetable do no exactly overlap, but they are close enough for the intent to be clear. Fayyad has strong backing from President Barack Obama.
Next year, before the U.S. presidential campaign kicks in, will be crunch time. Can Fayyad’s program, which is advancing, and political negotiations, which are not, be made to coincide?
I don’t know, but I’m sure Fayyad is the best hope for Palestine in a very long time. He’s building it rather than ballyhooing it.
The easy argument against him is that he’s isolated politically — opposed by Hamas in Gaza and regarded with suspicion by the Fatah old guard in the West Bank. The argument for him is that he’s getting things done, improving people’s lives, and Palestinians are tired of going nowhere.
“This is about our right to life as a free people with dignity on this land — meaning, so that I’m not misunderstood, the land occupied by Israel in 1967,” Fayyad told me. “Every day we do work consistent with that to create the sense of a state growing. Bad things happen every day but you’re bound to have a lucky bounce and we have to be ready for it.”
Outside his office in Ramallah, and elsewhere in the West Bank, the fruits of that work are apparent. Stores and restaurants are full, Palestinian Authority police are everywhere in their crisp uniforms, tension is low and the economy, fueled by massive injections of aid, grew 7 percent last year. Israel’s presence remains overwhelming — the checkpoints, the snaking wall-fence, the settler-only highways — but Fayyad’s state-building is pushing into whatever space is available.
Would Palestinians, if talks fail, unilaterally declare independence in 2011 — an idea Fayyad has on occasion seemed to intimate?
“This is not about declarations of statehood,” he said. “This is not about proclamations of a state. It is about getting ready for one. Ours is a healthy unilateralism. Contrast that, if you will, with Israeli settlement activity.”
He continued: “This is not about going it alone; this is about going together holding hands with everybody, including Israelis.”
Fayyad is tired of the paralyzing claims of the past. “Let us not allow ourselves the luxury of acting as victims forever,” he said. “This is a case of two opposed historical narratives. And if this is going to direct traffic in the future, we are not going too far. It’s time to get on with it and end this conflict. Let’s move on. Let’s really look forward.”
But what about Hamas, representing some 40 percent of Palestinians, those in Gaza, whose charter calls for Israel’s destruction and whose opposition to Fayyad is fierce? A “major problem,” an “Achilles’ heel,” the prime minister conceded, but insisted that statehood, as it took form, could prove a unifying theme.
“Is it possible,” he told me, “given past experience, that we may find ourselves in spring of next year without progress being made?
“It is possible. But I believe, instead of sitting on our hands and waiting to get a perfect alignment of the stars, if we get busy helping ourselves, in realizing our dream of having strong and effective institutions of state, we make this outcome less likely. That’s a good enough bet for me.”