Salam Fayyad: The Palestinian George Washington or the Palestinian Philippe Petain?

Is Palestinian PM Salam Fayyad creating a Palestinian state, giving Palestine away or simply acting as a US Agent? Depends on who you ask.

Salam Fayyad has been getting a lot of press lately, perhaps as a consequence of the perceived failure (or inevitable failure) of the Abbas peace talks with Israel.  The Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority – importantly, not affiliated with Hamas or Fatah – seems to have two very different public images.  The Fayyad that is projected to the international community is an intelligent,  American-trained economist that has completely rejected armed resistance and is willingly to work with Israel.  However, inside Palestine, there is another perception: one of a man that is slowly collaborating with Israel to undermine the true future of the Palestinian state.  The all-important question for the man who has declared his intention for an independent Palestine as soon as 2011 is whether he will be able to find sufficient domestic support.  In the polarized world of Palestinian politics, Fayyad is found somewhere in the grey middle.

Fayyad has been the star of several exposes in international papers and journals lately, including The Economist, The LA Times, NewsweekThe Huffington Post and Harper’s, that all applaud his attempts to bring forth a viable Palestinian state.  South Africa’s The Globe and Mail called Fayyad ‘A man of the people’ and talks at length about the many projects that Fayyad has organized to improve Palestinian infrastructure, while only mentioning the domestic opposition to Fayyad in passing.  Roger Cohen, in the New York Times, calls Fayyad “the best hope for Palestine in a very long time.”  Like the Globe and Mail, the Times glosses over the problems of Fayyad’s leadership and focuses on his strengths and accomplishments.  Additionally, Time Magazine placed Fayyad at number 10 on the top 100 leaders who affect the world.  In the magazine, Tony Blair wrote:

Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s uniqueness strikes you as soon as you meet him — a passionate advocate of the Palestinian cause with a clear vision of the unequivocal, nonviolent path to statehood and peace with Israel. In his three years in office, he has greatly strengthened the capacity of Palestinian government ministries and the security services despite both physical and political constraints. His reforms have led to dramatic improvements in security and the economy in the West Bank: Palestinians can move around more freely, jobs have been created, civil servants receive a regular salary, and people generally feel safer. These strides, as well as the stringent fiscal measures introduced by his government, are mighty accomplishments that are recognized by the international community and Israelis alike.

Domestically, the reviews are not as wild, but Fayyad still finds support.  An expose in Ma’an News compares Fayyad to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh.  While favorably noting that Fayyad has brought more positive changes than Haniyeh, the piece similarly points out the strong opposition to Fayyad from both Hamas and Fatah – underlining the political isolation that could ruin Fayyad’s chances for success.

[tweetmeme] Like most Palestinian politicians, Fayyad has never polled well, hitting only 25%-30% in polls.  Some of Fayyad’s domestic issues stem from his alignment with neither of the major political parties.  Perhaps more importantly, Fayyad is seen by many as both a puppet to the US and a collaborator with Israel.  A telling event occurred in February when Fayyad traveled to Herzliya (in Israel, near Tel Aviv) to give a speech to an audience of Israeli leaders.  In his speech, Fayyad outlined his plans for independence and noted specific steps he was taking to free Palestine.  Despite the message, Fayyad was blasted in Palestine for even attending the conference.  The fact that Israeli President Shimon Peres has called Fayyad the George Washington and the Ben Gurion of Palestine has seemingly worked against the PM.

In addition to being simply termed a collaborator, Fayyad’s program for creating institutions that will enable Palestinian independence are possibly turning against him.  A major part of Fayyad’s institution building plan is construction of viable roadways in the West Bank.  Financed mainly by USAID, these roadways are meant to improve the ability of Palestinians to move within their own country.  Unfortunately, as The National recently exposed, the construction of Palestinian roads has the unintended consequence of legitimizing the Israeli-only roads that cross throughout the West Bank while giving Israel political grounds to continue linking illegal settlements with Israeli roads.

Fayyad is not oblivious to the obstacles that he faces.  He needs to find popular support from the Palestinian people in order to truly impact Palestine’s future.  He is consistently traveling within the West Bank giving speeches and meeting with Palestinians in an attempt to win some grass-root support to counter the power of Hamas and Fatah.  He has also started to become more vocal in his criticism of Israel (something that is popular in Palestine), calling for the siege of Gaza to be lifted and banning goods produced in illegal Israeli settlements.  Indeed, Israel has shown concern that Fayyad is becoming more extreme while courting Palestinians:

The political rivalry between Abu Mazen and Salam Fayyad is causing the latter to become more extreme in his positions against Israel — this is the concern that was recently raised among various top political officials in Jerusalem…  Israel is particularly concerned by the fact that Fayyad is considered moderate by the US and the West, and free of corruption. Furthermore, as finance minister, he is the main beneficiary of the PA’s economic growth.

Indeed, Israel’s concern about Fayyad represents the very same problem the PM has with many Palestinians: despite his firm stance, he is difficult to categorize.  Many in Palestine see him as an agent of the US or Israel; Israel sees him as too extreme; and the US and the EU consider him to be a moderate actor.

It is tough to deny that the work that Fayyad is doing is beneficial to Palestine, even if it does have some unintended and unfortunate consequences.  As the clock ticks closer to 2011 (the date of Palestinian independence, according to Fayyad), questions remain about his ability to unify the Palestinian people and to deal effectively with Israel.  Despite the accolades heaped upon him by many in the international community, Palestinians cannot seem to decide who he is: George Washington or Philippe Petain.

Photo from Zimbio

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