“They’re celebrating in Ramallah tonight, but what about tomorrow morning?” the New Yorker’s David Remnick asked Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, in reference to the lopsided vote—138 countries in favor, 9 opposed and 41 abstaining—in favor of upgrading Palestine’s status at the United Nations.“We do have to worry about the day after,” Fayyad responded. “And the reality of the day after is going to be dominated, as it was the day before, by the reality of an oppressive occupation that has lasted for forty-five years.”
The interview took place Thursday evening at a screening of the new documentary film “State 194,” in reference to Palestine eventually becoming the United Nations’ 194th member state.
Introducing the film, which takes place over two years and focuses on Fayyad’s efforts at building the institutions of statehood in the West Bank, director Dan Setton said that he was driven to make it because “I refuse to believe that my children and grandchildren, and the children and grandchildren of Palestinians, are doomed to the same fate” of perpetual conflict.
Early in the film, Fayyad describes the reasoning behind his efforts. Everyone is saying the Palestinian readiness for self-government must be tested, Fayyad says, so “Let’s define the test, and let’s take it!”
The film is full of scenes showing Fayyad meeting with various Palestinian civil society groups, doing the work of day-to-day politics. In one scene, he meets with a group of village elders. As the meeting breaks up, he says “We can continue this on Facebook.” The others respond, “Yes, on Facebook!”
The film also includes interviews with a number of Israeli and Palestinian activists (including two bloggers, one in Ramallah and one in Gaza, jointly organizing the demonstrations of March 15, 2011), American and Israeli officials. Avi Dichter, former Minister of Internal Security and head of Shin Bet, praises Fayyad as “the first Palestinian leader who understood the importance of security” for Israel. The film then cuts to Fayyad telling a radio interviewer that “Every shot fired [at Israel] is a shot fired at our national project.”
Particularly interesting is a scene of Tzipi Livni meeting with a group of settlers including Danny Dayan, the head of the Yesha Council, all of whom are of course opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state on land they believe must remain part of Israel. Voicing a criticism of settlement growth that is too little heard, “I tell Netanyahu that it’s immoral for him, if he believes in two states, to send a young couple to start their lives” in a settlement from which they’ll likely be evicted after a two state agreement. One woman’s response demonstrates the political challenge: “My life has no meaning if Jews can’t live in all of the land of Israel.”
In the Q&A after the screening, Fayyad was asked whether any Israeli settlers would be allowed to stay in the state of Palestine. He thought for a moment then said, “I can tell you for certain that the State of Palestine will be based on equality.” As for the continuing increase of Israeli settlers in Palestinian territory, “Once ‘land swaps’ started creeping into the lexicon, that contributed to the problem,” he said, as it suggested to Israelis that there was no problem in moving across the Green Line to settlements that Israel intended on keeping. But “if settlers want to stay, that will be fine. Their rights will be respected.”
Asked by Remnick if the Palestinians would pay a price for going forward with the U.N. vote, Fayyad responded, “It depends what comes next. What’s important is to use this in a productive way.” To those who were previously opposed, he said, “It’s behind us now. What we must all do is seize the moment and see if this will provide an impetus for an end to the occupation.”
As for what President Obama can do to move the process forward, Fayyad said that it is “high time for the administration to work with others in the international community to discuss whether things should or will be allowed to continue as they have.” The president should “lay out expectations of what a settlement might look like” and “establish new ground rules where the accountability bar is set much higher than before.”
Fayyad was critical of the Obama administration’s early focus on Israeli settlement building “to the exclusion of other problems, like [Israeli] military incursions” into Palestinian communities. Other issues, “like settler violence, these didn’t get the attention they should have.” What the Palestinian people see, Fayyad said, “is an occupation that entrenches itself with each passing day.”
Asked by an audience member about his own political standing among Palestinians, Fayyad acknowledged the serious difficulties and erosion in standing resulting from the lack of an effective political process. “You tend to lose a lot of the political capital you once had when confronted with a situation like this,” he said. “As in this country, people ask ‘What have you done for me lately?’”
Fayyad called the recent Gaza conflict, in which both Hamas and the Israeli government declared victory, “a defeat for what we [the P.A.] stand for.” “It was Hamas who was able to get the release of over 1000 prisoners. It was Hamas, by pushing a few buttons, was able to get the world’s attention. This was a defeat for our non-violent approach.”
But, “As part of readiness for statehood, it’s a necessity to unite our people,” Fayyad said in response to a question about Fatah and Hamas reconciliation. “Without reunification, without Gaza, a two-state solution will not be possible.”
“It’s important for Israel not to wait until the perfect deal emerges,” Fayyad continued. “It’s going to be the case that Hamas has a different political platform than ours. Is that enough to prevent a deal?” Continuing to have a long list of conditions for Palestinian reunification “isn’t in anyone’s interest, including Israel.” (It’s important to note here that one of Hamas’s reported conditions for reconciliation is that Fayyad himself not be part of any unity government.)
While trying, in his usual way, to seem optimistic about the future, Fayyad coldly assessed the perception of Palestinians themselves. “What I see with each passing day,” he said, “is that our people see the horizon of peace receding. I think that’s dangerous, and if it continues, people will choose more and more to opt out of investing in that possibility.”