by Douglas Bloomfield
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has dispensed with the closest thing the Palestinian Authority has to an indispensable man, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
No one has done more to stabilize the Palestinian economy, build the institutions for a state, bring integrity and reform to the Palestinian government, win the confidence of the Western donor nations and earn Israeli praise for security cooperation. All that is now in danger.
Fayyad gave Palestinians a unique form of Arab government, one “based on competence, not on a legacy of (armed) resistance or on religion,” Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, told The New York Times. He dubbed it “Fayyadism” and called it “a new source of legitimacy.”
But it was apparently too much for the old guard of Abbas and his Fatah Party. Fayyad “invited envy and resentment” from them, making him “a political rival who must be cut down to size,” said Hassan Barari, a Jordanian scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Fayyad, 61, a U.S.-educated former World Bank economist, was that rarity in the least likely of places, an honest politician who fought cronyism and corruption the P.A. inherited from Yasser Arafat.
Secretary of State John Kerry unsuccessfully tried to prevent the resignation, but the relationship between the two Palestinian leaders had deteriorated too far. In fact, Kerry’s calls may have backfired by creating resentment over American intervention in internal matters.
“The crisis of confidence between the two leaders was sharp and irreparable,” said Ha’aretz columnist Barak Ravid. “[Fayyad’s] effective management and relative popularity meant he was a threat to too many people.”
Their relationship steadily deteriorated as Abbas became increasingly autocratic while Fayyad pressed for greater financial transparency and political reform.
Many in Fatah leadership welcomed Fayyad’s exit; they considered him too independent, too close to Washington, too popular abroad, too unsympathetic to their demands for patronage jobs and other spoils and he wasn’t a party member. In other words, he was just too honest.
In Fayyad’s view, “Abbas’ diplomacy has only brought the Palestinian economy to a state of near collapse,” said Barari.
Fayyad strongly opposed Abbas’ unilateral bid for U.N. membership in the face of strong American and Israeli opposition, warning it would carry heavy financial consequences. And when he was proven right, some in the Fatah leadership blamed him for the resulting cutoff of funding and an inability to pay government salaries.
“Fayyad was subjected to an increasingly vituperative campaign of public vilification,” said the American Task Force for Palestine (ATFP).
Fayyad also felt Hamas-Fatah reconciliation was a major mistake because it would not only create an even greater financial crisis but was also unworkable. Both sides blamed him for the failure of that effort so far, but they are delusional if they think his departure will make it any easier.
He warned such a deal would dry up Western funding and end any chance of restarting peace talks with Israel because neither Washington nor Israel would deal with a government that included Hamas, which they and many other countries consider a terrorist organization whose avowed goal is the destruction of the Jewish state. And security cooperation would halt, opening the way for renewed conflict.
Fayyad’s “reputation of being fair and clean … irked the rest of the Fatah leadership,” Barari said. ATFP credited him with introducing “the most transparent public finance system in the Arab world.”
Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed, the head of Al-Arabiya television, said, “Fayyad is the one person who gave the Palestinian government a good reputation,” and Abbas “has always blamed Fayyad for his problems.”
An unnamed “senior Western diplomat” told Reuters, “I do not think Fatah understands that Fayyad is the only Palestinian politician who has the support of a broad spectrum of international donors. The wheels could come off aid deals very quickly with him out of the government. He carried a lot of weight with Washington, with the Israelis and with Europe.” Fayyad has agreed to remain on as head of a caretaker government until a replacement is named. That could range from next week to no-one-knows-when. Abbas himself might take the job because prior agreements with Hamas call for him to head an interim government until new elections can be held. That could be a long way off since the two rival factions have been unable to agree on the makeup of the interim government, the election terms, a date or much else.
Fayyad’s departure is also a great loss for Israel. He reformed and restructured the P.A. security establishment into a professional force that made the West Bank and Israel safer for everyone and established effective coordination with Israeli authorities.
But it is also true that the Netanyahu government’s disinterest in renewed negotiations and expansion of settlements badly undercut the one Palestinian leader it claimed to support.
He has been called the go-to man for Israel’s military and political leaders as well as for the United States, the Europeans and the donor nations. They may be reluctant to pour more money into the P.A. until they are convinced the new leadership will be as reliable and committed to transparency and responsible governance as Fayyad. Further deterioration of Palestinian economic conditions could lead to political unrest, and if that turns violent it could spill over into Israel with a possible third Intifada.
Just last month Kerry met with Netanyahu and Palestinian leaders and they agreed to focus on West Bank economic development as a path back to peace negotiations. Fayyad’s resignation could prove a serious setback for that initiative, but with neither Netanyahu nor Abbas showing any real interest in returning to the table, the greatest immediate concern in Israel about Fayyad’s departure is continued close security cooperation.
Fayyad felt Abbas spent too much time globetrotting, a la Arafat, and not enough at home tending to his day job. Now Abbas will have a chance spend more time in Ramallah finding out whether accepting his rival’s resignation was the right thing to do.
Douglas Bloomfield is a nationally syndicated columnist.