In the days leading up to Friday’s surprise decision by the Trump administration to block the appointment of former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to a top U.N. job, senior U.S. officials in Washington and New York assured U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres and other diplomats that they would accept him for the job, according to diplomatic sources.
That made late Friday’s abrupt about face — with the Trump administration suddenly vetoing Fayyad’s appointment to lead the U.N. mission in Libya — all the more shocking for U.S. partners on the Security Council and some career U.S. diplomats, according to those diplomatic sources.
The U.S. action, the officials said, created an unnecessary public confrontation with the U.N. chief, who would not have selected the well-regarded former Palestinian leader without the consent of the United States and other key Security Council members. The diplomatic dustup exposed a degree of chaos in U.S. decision making, these diplomats say, that makes it hard to anticipate where U.S. policy is headed.
A spokesman for Guterres, Stephane Dujarric, told Foreign Policy by email Saturday that “based on the information available to him at the time, the Secretary-General had the perception, now proven wrong, that the proposal would be acceptable to Security Council members.”
In a separate statement, Dujarric said the U.N. chief has selected Fayyad “solely based” on his “recognized personal qualities.” He added that U.N. employees “serve strictly in their personal capacity,” not on behalf of their governments.
He noted that no Israeli or Palestinian had ever served in a post of “high responsibility” at the U.N., “a situation the Secretary General feels should be corrected.”
A U.S. official denied that Haley had ever signed off on Fayyad for the U.N. job.
Security Council diplomats from France and Sweden on Saturday issued statement in support of Guterres decision to appoint Fayyad. “Salam Fayyad is indeed a very high profile personality, unanimously appreciated for his experience and expertise,” France’s U.N. ambassador Francois Delattre said in a statement Saturday.
“We support the [secretary-general’s] choice,” added Sweden’s U.N. ambassador Olof Skoog. “It is the SG’s prerogative to independently select and appoint his representatives.”
Diplomats said that Fayyad’s name had been floating around in high level U.N. circles for more than a month, providing the U.S. and other countries with ample time to signal their opposition to the appointment. Following informal soundings, Guterres sent the U.N. Security Council a letter on Wednesday indicating his intention to select Fayyad, a former IMF official with good relations with the Bush and Obama administration, as well as many Israelis, who appreciated his role in checking corruption in the Palestinian Authority and viewed him as a counterweight to Hamas.
Fayyad’s posting was meant to help shore up a tottering Libyan government beleaguered by militias and internal divisions. Libya is increasingly creeping back onto the radar of Western security officials given the rise in extremists and a growing Russian interest in the country.
But Nikki Haley issued a statement late Friday evening expressing U.S. “disappointment” over Fayyad’s appointment.
“For too long the UN has been unfairly biased in favor of the Palestinian Authority to the detriment of our allies in Israel,” she said in a statement. “The United States does not recognize a Palestinian state or support the signal this appointment would send with the United Nations…”
U.N. based diplomats said they understood the appointment had already been signed off by the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and the State Department. They suspect that the White House stepped in at the last minute to kill off the appointment. The move sowed confusion among diplomats, who say they were caught off guard, and dismayed veteran Middle East hands.
“I am not sure they know what they are doing anymore,” said one Security Council diplomat. Even their own “career diplomats seemed to be shocked by the decision.”
“The thing I’m sure is that Nikki Haley’s reaction was driven by D.C. It’s really a pity,” said a second Security Council diplomat.
“It’s bananas,” said Ilan Goldenberg, who was a member of former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s Middle East peace negotiating team. “Fayyad is a model of what the United States and Israel want out of the Palestinian leadership. Period.”
A spokesman for Haley declined to comment. The State Department and the National Security Council did not respond to emailed requests for comment Saturday.
The announcement comes as Republican lawmakers and the White House have been looking for ways to single out the Palestinians for criticism in retaliation for a December U.N. resolution condemning Israel’s settlement policies.
The resolution, which was adopted by a vote of 14-0, with the Obama administration abstaining, prompted a U.N. backlash in Washington. Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced legislation threatening to cut off of all funding for U.N. programs unless the Security Council reversed the settlement resolutions.
Diplomats in New York say that is a non-starter, particularly since Israel has since announced the approval of thousands of new housing units in the West Bank. Haley, who has argued against the imposition of “slash and burn” budget cuts on the international body, hosted Graham in New York over a week ago, and arranged a discreet meeting with Guterres to try to smooth relations.
Haley, meanwhile, has sought to convince the Security Council to take a tougher line on Palestinian violence against Israelis, characterizing such acts as terrorism. The Arab world has long resisted characterizing anti-Israeli violence as terrorism, claiming that Palestinians have the right to resist Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands.
On Friday, Haley sought to secure Security Council support for a statement condemning a Palestinian shooting and stabbing of Israel shoppers in the central Israel town of Petah Tivka, injuring at least six people. But the U.S. withdrew the draft statement — which requires consensus to be adopted — after Bolivia insisted that the statement include a reference to the December resolution denouncing Israel’s settlements.
Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Danny Danon, praised the U.S. decision to block Fayyad’s appointment, saying “this is the beginning of a new era at the U.N., an era where the U.S. stands firmly behind Israel against any and all attempts to harm the Jewish state.” But the Israeli daily Haaretz, citing two senior Israeli officials, reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government was not consulted on the decision to block Fayyad.
But former U.S. officials were appalled by the decision, saying that Fayyad, a former World Bank official, had been instrumental in rooting out corruption and building state institutions. He was well regarded by the United States and Israel, yet reviled by Palestinian hardliners, including Hamas.
“He had great relations with the Bush administration and the Obama administration,” Goldenberg said. “And he was strongly supported by Israelis of all ilks, except for the very far right. I have a hard time believing Israel asked for this.”
“The more interesting aspect of the Fayyad case is that Hamas hates him,” said one senior U.N. -based official.
“When he was PM, he always found way to out flank them So you have the Americans blocking someone Hamas hates. The White House and Hamas on the same side here?”
Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
This story has been updated.