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Interview: How Salam Fayyad plans to save the Palestinian dream

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad brought the PA back from the brink once. Now he wants to create Palestinian settlements, in effect, to counter Israeli moves.

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Largely above the Fatah-Hamas fray

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It isn't at all clear where the ship he helps to steer is headed. As premier, Fayyad heads the Palestinian Legislative Council, which rarely meets, and a Palestinian body politic which is has been a state of dysfunction and divide since June 2007 (when Hamas violently ousted Fatah from Gaza and took over the coastal strip). Afterward losing Gaza, Abbas declared a state of emergency and appointed Fayyad prime minister. (The erstwhile prime minister under the short-lived unity government, Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, retained his claim to the title in Gaza.)

An Egyptian-brokered compromise proposal aimed at bringing Hamas and Fatah back together in a reconciliation deal has been on the table for weeks, but keeps hitting new hurdles that seem less and less surmountable. In the latest of these, Abbas declared that Palestinian elections would be held on Jan. 24. Hamas responded by saying that the decision was a "destructive strike" that undermined any attempt to reach a compromise deal, and issued a severe warning to is supporters – and Gazans in general – not to participate.

Fayyad, who has avoided taking sides in the Fatah-Hamas fray, says that constitutionally, Abbas ran out of time and had no choice but declare elections.

"I hope it will not happen that it is seen as a hostile act," Fayyad adds. But how the Palestinian Authority can have elections if large swaths of the people meant to be polled in such a vote won't – or can't – get to a voting both is only the beginning of the question. Even though Fayyad prefers to keep his eyes on the prize and his feet out of the political mud, he says that there's no solution without Gaza. "The other leg that this had to stand on is the reunification of our country," he says. "Clearly, we cannot do this if the country continues to be divided."

A man who does his homework

Fayyad's plan was recently analyzed in depth by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA), a right-of-center think tank. Dan Diker, the JCPA's senior foreign analyst, says that the plan is potentially dangerous because it doesn't call for working in tandem with Israel on issues that the Jewish state sees as essential to its security.

Namely, he says, Israel won't agree to give up control of the Jordan Valley – the area that defines the natural border between Jordan and Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emphasized in a speech this summer, in which he endorsed a two-state solution for the first time, that he would only agree if Israel could maintain "defensible borders," Mr. Diker says.

"For Israel to be 12 kilometers [7 miles] away from a Palestinian state that is 3,000 feet above sea level, which is looking down on Ben Gurion airport with most of Israel's infrastructure? After the rockets from Gaza, people are saying, 'Yikes, this is a dangerous proposal,'" Diker says. "Also, Prime Minister Fayyad wants to build as close to the Green Line as possible," he says, in reference to Israel's pre-1967 borders, "and he doesn't want to do it with Israel. He doesn't want Israel to partner with Israel, he wants to disengage from Israel."

Fayyad, who clearly does his homework, already has Diker's report from the JCPA printed out in his office in Ramallah.

"If we don't do anything, people will criticize us, and if we come up with something that's proactive, we'll also have critics," shrugs Fayyad. "Is this realistic? We'll never know unless we try."