Fayyad’s star fades while the centrality of Abbas’s leadership endures
By Henry Anreder
In June 2010, Thomas Friedman penned an editorial championing “Fayyadism”, a term he named for Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, the father of this new Palestinian “revolution.” His rationale went as following:
It is a revolution based on building Palestinian capacity and institutions not just resisting Israeli occupation, on the theory that if the Palestinians can build a real economy, a professional security force and an effective, transparent government bureaucracy it will eventually become impossible for Israel to deny the Palestinians a state in the West Bank and Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.
Perhaps Friedman had reason to be optimistic. After all, he was writing only eighteen months after the nearly successful Olmert-Abbas negotiations, and spirits were certainly higher than they were during the dark days of the Second Intifada. A détente between Israel and the PA had solidified in the years since the 2005, with President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad delivering considerable improvements in the realm of security and economic development. And, equally importantly, the Arab Spring had yet to throw its historic curveball at the region. While the Israeli Gaza Flotilla operation in May 2010 understandably provoked outrage around the world, the Palestinian Authority maintained open dialogue with Israel and in September 2010 entered the last round of direct peace negotiations.
For a few months, Friedman had us convinced that Fayyad held the keys to Palestine’s creation. To those in Washington, this American-educated economist seemed a natural partner for collaboration. His background working at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and his success at generating growth in the Palestinian economy resonated particularly well with Americans living through a historical recession, as did his emphasis on “building institutions.” Many analysts, tired of the endless political maneuvering of the Arafat era, embraced Fayyad’s blend of pragmatism and optimism.
I had the chance to hear the Palestinian leader speak in Washington at the New America Foundation in September 2010. Speaking to a crowded room filled with academics and journalists, he shared not only stories of the suffering of his people, but also the no-nonsense solution of state-building as a catalyst for statehood: jobs, tax collection, private investment. Though inspirational, the speech conveyed neither the confidence nor persuasion capabilities needed to carry a nation. When asked if the Palestinian Authority would resort to unilateral declaration of statehood, Fayyad joked, “Declaration of statehood is above my pay grade, for one thing.” After the crowd chuckled, he resumed his serious tone and said, “This is about getting ready for statehood, not about declaring one.” Given the ongoing 2010 negotiations, such a moderated statements was understandable. Two years later, Fayyad’s speech highlights just how much the Palestinian Authority has struggled recently to assert any credible political charisma.
Fayyad’s primary success, growing the economy, has come to a halt. Economic growth slowed down in 2011 in the West Bank from 7.5 to 5.8% while it continued to rise at the sky high rate of 25.8% in Gaza. In a March 2012 study, the World Bank argued that, “ [the] slowdown in growth in the West Bank can be attributed to falling donor support combined with the uncertainty caused by the Palestinian Authority’s fiscal crisis, as well as lack of significant new easing of Israeli restrictions.”
The explanation for the economic slowdown is less wonkish than it sounds. The main problem with Friedman’s overly optimistic 2010 projections of Fayyadism is not trouble with tax collection or foreign aid. It’s politics. Although Fayyad guided the Palestinian Authority through a series of successful technical reforms and security reforms, both Fayyad and Abbas have struggled to secure the primary political objectives of sustained foreign aid, a settlement slowdown or further checkpoint closures. While Israel showed it was wiling to compromise and close checkpoints in 2009, the Israeli government now distrusts the Palestinian Authority as unrepresentative of a Palestinian population underwhelmed by its incremental policies. Chris McGreal, reporting from Ramallah on Tuesday November 27th observed that many ordinary Palestinians believe the conflict showed that standing up to Israel delivers results, in contrast to years of concessions under US peace plans, and drawn-out negotiations. Even before the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, Palestinians took to the streets in protest earlier this September in objection to the rising cost of living and delay of civil servant wages. Soon after the protesters burnt effigies of the prime minister, Fayyad acknowledged his plummeting public image and admitted he was open to resigning.
Without a viable path to negotiations, Abbas came to New York today to address the United Nations General Assembly ahead of a vote that will likely confer non-member state observer status to Palestine. The patient, aging Palestinian leader, though a symbolic political action in New York, has arguably delivered greater leadership than Fayyad could on the ground raising the standard of living in the West Bank. Abbas has taken a risky stand that places the future of the Palestinians in the depoliticized West Bank back into the forefront of international attention. According to Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev, the Netanyahu administration will determine its next steps with regards to the Palestinian Authority depending on their use of the likely non-member status; “If they use it to continue confronting Israel and other U.N. bodies, there will be a firm response. If not, then there won’t.” As even Israel softens its stance on the topic to downplay its importance, Europe, including France, the United Kingdom, and even Germany are siding with the politically charged Abbas agenda as they move away from the dwindling American-driven infatuation with Fayyad. After internalizing the lessons of 2010, Abbas has discarded the mantle of Fayyadism and will determine the fate of the Palestinian Authority moving forward.
Henry Anreder is a Staff Writer at the Jerusalem Review of Near East Affairs.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons