A Serious Look at Fayyad

Hussein Ibish on what Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is, and isn't.

I like and respect Geoffrey Aronson, and his bimonthly Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories, published by the Foundation for Middle East Peace, has long been a must-read for those tracking the settlement project. I was all the more taken aback, therefore, by his recent critique of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Aronson’s criticisms are riddled with inaccuracies, loaded with emotive and hostile phraseology, and, most importantly, offer no alternatives.

Aronson’s basic argument is self-refuting. He tries to paint Fayyad as a non-threatening lapdog of the occupation whose project has only served Israeli and American interests. He simultaneously suggests, though, that many pro-occupation Israelis have come to view his institution-building program as a threat, causing them to label Fayyad "an obstacle to peace."

But from the outset, Fayyad's policies have been the greatest possible threat to all those, on both sides, who do not want a two-state solution based on a compromise. This is because his program actually worked successfully to start to create the infrastructure of an independent Palestinian state. Greater Israel advocates have therefore always looked at him with deep suspicion, as have Hamas and one-state advocates. Hostility towards Fayyad by extremists is nothing new.

Aronson claims "Fayyad has evidently despaired of his failed state-building strategy." There is no evidence of that at all. Fayyad has been the first to label recent events, which have tended to undermine moderates and boost extremists, particularly Hamas, as, in his words, "doctrinal defeats.” But what has halted Fayyad's project in its tracks is the double whammy, following Palestinian diplomatic initiatives at the United Nations, of the withholding of Palestinian tax revenue by Israel and the steep reduction in aid from the West.

Fayyad, in fact, is not despairing but, as usual, looking for solutions: bank loans and other temporary financial solutions; ways of restoring aid from the West or increasing that from the Arab world; and trying to build a reliable and regular system for the transfer of Palestinian revenues by Israel under the terms of the Paris Protocol. Aronson, meanwhile, mistakenly accepts Israel's claims that many outstanding Palestinian debts to Israel are governmental, when in fact they are owed by privately-held companies.

Aronson makes the bizarre claim that Fayyad was "catapulted" into senior Palestinian leadership ranks by George W. Bush, personally. And he backs this up with the ridiculous assertion that, because Fayyad studied at the University of Texas, “When Bush looked him in the eye he saw a Texan.” This is a baseless argument desperately looking for nonexistent evidence. It's a barometer of how seriously the whole article should be taken. In fact Fayyad was appointed Finance Minister personally by President Yasser Arafat in 2002, following his service as the IMF representative to the PA from 1996 to 2001. What's more, Fayyad also served as Finance Minister in the Palestinian unity government, that included Hamas, from March to June 2007.

Yet Aronson claims that in 2002, Bush set then-Prime Minister (now-President) Mahmoud Abbas and Fayyad up as “America’s Palestine tag team” in order to marginalize Yasser Arafat's power. This is entirely fictional, and borders on calumny. In fact Fayyad worked well with Arafat, while Abbas ended up resigning as Prime Minister and only returned to power after Arafat's death. Aronson’s account of this whole period—and Fayyad's roles within Palestinian politics and his relationship with the United States—is conspiratorial, misinformed, misleading and flat-out wrong.

Aronson writes that Fayyad's position is "extra-constitutional," since he was appointed by a "constitutionally dubious sleight of hand,” as if problems accruing from the lack of Palestinian national unity and elections were somehow unique to him. Fayyad, he claims without any evidence, "promised to accommodate Bush’s demands for competent governance." This outrageous and insulting phraseology can only be based on the assumption that "competent governance" has to be imposed on the Palestinians by others, and cannot or should not be a natural, necessary and independent Palestinian aspiration, program and policy. And he ignores the fact that calls for such reforms have been a persistent demand of Palestinian civil society, dating back to the Arafat era.

Aronson is right that, for all its well-documented successes on the ground, institution-building policies have not succeeded in winning Palestinian independence, an observation Fayyad makes all the time. It was never intended, on its own, to achieve that goal, since it obviously cannot, but to be part of a series of strategies working from the bottom up at the ground level in the top down at the diplomatic level. Although the institution-building program made enormous strides until the end of 2011, the policy has been under enormous pressure recently due to the fiscal crisis, as Fayyad himself has frequently explained.

Crucially, Aronson suggests no alternatives. Fayyad's approach is based on two assumptions: 1) if Palestinians don't work to create their state, they will never have one; and 2) peace depends on reasonable people on both sides compromising in order to reach an agreement based on the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. If Aronson disputes these assumptions and has a better approach to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, after this indefensible article he is obliged to share that with the rest of us, and quickly.