A New Challenge for Palestinians

Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's resignation has the potential to inject clarity and honesty into the region's problems.

Apr 18, 2013
By

The looming resignation of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, announced last week, may be very bad news for the prospects of good governance in Palestine. But it has the potential to inject clarity and honesty into the problems of the much-too-promised land. Fayyad's departure may help to dispel four dangerous myths that continue to distort the way different constituencies view the issues that divide the region. It's time we lay them to rest. They are:

The myth of Palestinian unity

Now that Fayyad is leaving, the way should be clearer for serious discussions between Hamas and Fatah about achieving reconciliation and unity. Fayyad, to hear Hamas tell it (some in Fatah too) was a major obstacle in the way of the formation of a unity government in the territories. Now with his political demise, those talks will intensify, but that is only likely to expose them for what they have always been — a political device by Hamas and Fatah to manage public opinion. Real unity — one gun, one negotiating strategy, one authority — isn't achievable given the divide that exists between the two Palestinian factions. What divides them isn't the number of seats in a parliament or how power might be shared. What divides them are fundamental differences over what Palestine is and even where it should be. Palestinian unity is an illusion, and Fayyad's departure will help reveal it.

The myth of Fayyadism

If and when the state of Palestine emerges, Salam Fayyad will be remembered as a visionary in its creation. An American-trained economist, he is one of the few politically active and relevant senior Palestinians who openly champions good governance and institution-building, and he has succeeded by almost any standard and against formidable odds in creating a realistic strategy for laying the institutional foundation for statehood.

But the incremental Fayyad approach was to build from the bottom up, to concentrate on building social and economic institutions (hospitals, clinics, roads), to reform the security services and to make Palestinian government more accountable and functional. If the peace process had embraced a top-down approach as well, focusing on a resolution of the final status issues and creating a path for ending the Israeli occupation and, ultimately, for statehood, Fayyad would have had a far more compelling defense against his critics.

Instead, he focused on institution-building, which, although worthy, never had the political base it needed. It also had natural limits beyond which it couldn't expand, especially given Israeli control of large amounts of the West Bank and its domination of access and movement issues. Indeed, from the Palestinian perspective, Fayyadism could have been interpreted as a form of gilding the cage; that is to say, pacifying Palestinians without offering them an end to the Israeli occupation. Fayyad, an authentic Palestinian nationalist, became Israel's and the West's favorite Palestinian, which further helped to erode his credibility.

The myth of Palestinian leadership

Fayyad's resignation highlights another painful reality. The Palestinian national movement faces a leadership crisis of historic proportions. Not only is the movement itself divided into two parts — geographically and politically — but if Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas were to leave the scene, Fatah itself might split. Unlike in the wake of Yasser Arafat's death, when there was an obvious successor, there would be none today. Indeed, there's no obvious, nationally recognized figure or cadre of respected senior officials who could hold the Palestinian Authority together. The name that's usually mentioned as a possibility is Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, but he is currently serving several life sentences in an Israeli prison.

Fayyad is relevant here not because he might be viewed as a credible successor but precisely because he cannot be. And that's the point that highlights the crisis in leadership. Fayyad — rational, moderate right-thinking technocrat — lacks the street credentials, let alone the mind-set, to play and succeed in Palestinian politics as they are presently constituted. What remains are the strugglers, the maneuverers and the fighters who, though they have an ability to rally the crowds, don't seem to have much ability to govern effectively. 

Abbas sits somewhere in between — a good man whose capacity to sign an agreement with Israel on Jerusalem and refugees that departs from the current Palestinian consensus is slim to none. Indeed, Abbas has no intention of being remembered as the Palestinian who agreed to a settlement that compromises Palestinian rights and dignity.

The myth of the peace process

Fayyad's resignation will not have an appreciable impact on the prospects for a conflict-ending agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, because the chance of that happening in current circumstances is quite remote. His resignation will upset the donors, worry the Americans and trouble the Israelis, who will have lost a key ally in their efforts to limit the peace process to a bottom-up approach. And Palestinians in the West Bank will lose an advocate dedicated to the kind of transparency, accountability and institutional development that would have made their lives better.

Perhaps Fayyad's resignation, though, will serve to bring the real issues back into focus. They are not institutional development, or reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, or even the process of peacemaking that Secretary of State John F. Kerry hopes to empower. The peace process will certainly go on. But true peace in the not-so-holy land is possible only when Israelis and Palestinians are prepared to pay the price on the issues that drive their conflict — borders, Jerusalem, refugees and security. And right now, they are most assuredly not ready to do so.

This article originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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