Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad – well regarded among international donors and Western supporters of the Palestinian Authority (PA) – tendered his resignation Saturday, saying he will leave office by the end of March.
The surprise move threatens to scuttle hopes within the Obama administration of having Mr. Fayyad head a new national unity government of Hamas and Fatah Party rivals that would be held together by technocrats above the political fray.
Others say Fayyad is stepping aside to make way for a new Palestinian government and will return to politics after a deal is struck between the Islamists of Hamas and the secular nationalists of Fatah.
Fayyad has come under increasing pressure from both sides of the Palestinian divide to step down in order to enable progress in reconciliation talks, set to resume on Tuesday in Cairo.
Fayyad, a former World Bank official, is not affiliated with either of the two main Palestinian political movements. Even though he was chosen as prime minister less than two years ago by PA President Mahmoud Abbas, Fayyad is not a member of Fatah – the mainstream faction of the PLO. As such, according to many observers, he was loath to play its game of paying salaries for patronage.
Fayyad's resignation raises the stakes on the reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas, the latest round of which were set in motion by the Gaza war.
"There are talks in Cairo and Fayyad thinks by end of this month there should be a new cabinet, so he is resigning to open up the doors for such a government to walk through them," says Ali Jarbawi, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University and an independent member of the talks in Cairo. "He wants to make the point that his cabinet is not a block to them reaching an agreement. His message is, 'Put your act together. And if you are going to spend these meetings attacking my cabinet, then I'll take this cabinet out of the way," Dr. Jarbawi explains.
Officials in Washington emphasize that President Obama expects to see new progress in talks with Israel despite Fayyad's resignation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was here last week on her first visit to the region, during which time she emphasized the necessity of having a Palestinian government – were it to include Hamas along with Fatah – headed by a nonpartisan technocrat.
"This government made great strides in providing the transparency, accountability, and security that will be essential to achieving a two-state solution," US National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said Saturday. "We expect any future Palestinian government to continue this progress," Mr. Hammer said.
Closer to the situation, however, a senior Western diplomat here acknowledged some frustration with Fayyad's resignation. "Obviously, he was the man we felt very comfortable in dealing with."
Hamas, on the other hand, was pleased with the news of Fayyad's departure. In recent months, Hamas and even the hard-line wings of Fatah accused him of working in the interests of Israel and the US.
After months of strife and failed talks, Hamas drove Fatah out of Gaza in 2007, putting an end to the earlier unity government. Mr. Abbas, with urging from the international community, installed a "caretaker government" with Fayyad at the helm.
Optimists here say Fayyad's exit sets a deadline for reaching some resolution in unity talks. His departure date coincides with an Arab Summit in Doha at which time Palestinians hope to have signed an agreement on a unity government.