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.

Ilene R. Prusher/Staff Writer
Salam Fayyad, a top international finance official educated in the US, talks about his vision for Palestinian statehood in his sleek Ramallah office.

Palestinian elections are scheduled to be held in less than three months, but the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Salam Fayyad, isn't concerned about running for office.

Rather, he's set his sights on a longer-term platform: establishing a Palestinian state by 2011 – a goal he outlined recently in a clear, well-organized booklet titled "Palestine: Ending the Occupation, Establishing the State."

"All I'm campaigning for is the two-year statehood program," said Dr. Fayyad in an interview Sunday. "The idea is unabashedly that two years down the road, we will have something that will look like a Palestinian state."

His office, sleek and ultramodern, seems to capture something of the man who is trying to save the Palestinian dream from collapse. And unlike workspace of most Palestinian politicians, the dominant photo is not a portrait of PA President Mahmoud Abbas or legendary Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat – but rather, a grand, old olive tree. It seems fitting that this, the Palestinian symbol of connection to the land, is what Fayyad sees when he looks up from his desk.

His two-year plan that many would deem unreachable seems to be a riff on the famous quote from the 1989 baseball movie "Field of Dreams": "If you build it, they will come."

"If we don't build it, who will?" asks Fayyad, enthusiastically. "We want to build an infrastructure that will aid in ending the occupation. I view this as a mission, not an occupation," he says. "You know, the other kind of occupation," he smiles, showing off his fluid command of English, honed as a PhD student in economics at the University of Texas.

Fayyad optimistic; Israelis skeptical

A former senior official at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Fayyad came onto the Palestinian political scene, somewhat reluctantly, by agreeing to become Yasser Arafat's finance minister in 2002. At the time, the Palestinian Authority was mid-intifada and mired in corruption. Fayyad's international credibility and economic expertise helped pull the PA back from the brink.

Now, he wants the PA to focus on the nuts and bolts of state-building, from schools and sewage to building new cities and affordable housing in the West Bank.

His sweeping plan, laid out in a succinct 50 pages, has become Fayyad's calling card, and is full of objectives that seem as optimistic and positive as Fayyad himself. But the plan is already raising eyebrows in Israel, drawing criticism for its call to unilateral action in disputed territory. For example, the plan calls for Palestinian building in "Area C" – a West Bank area populated by Palestinians but designated as being under Israel's security control by the Oslo Accords.

Fayyad makes no apologies for that. If Israel can build on the land over which it is supposed to be negotiating, so can Palestinians, he says.

"They say it's unilateral, to which I say, 'yes.' This is something I confess to. It's effective unilateralism," says Fayyad. "There is another brand of unilateralism exercised by Israel, which is called settlement building. What I have here is an agenda of creating positive facts on the ground."

The "facts on the ground" approach is the same one, interestingly, that Israel used to build settlements in the first place. But Israel still has the power to knock down buildings erected without its permission. "Then we'll just build them again," says Fayyad, who has an can-do attitude when he talks about his plan that seems out-of-step with the skepticism that pervades most Palestinian politics.

Still, he's resigned out of frustration several times in the past, and each time, President Abbas refused to accept his resignation. Asked where the optimism comes from, he shrugs. "I just don't view everything around me as fate," he says. "But sometimes there is a certain sense of defeatism around here," he adds. "Four decades of occupation does something to you."

Largely above the Fatah-Hamas fray

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."

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