Marc Lynch

What will it be like without Fayyad?

Salam al-Fayyad. Photo: ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images  On her debut trip to the Middle East last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went out of her way to repeatedly single out Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as a vital American partner.  So why did Fayyad announce his resignation only days after she left? And what does ...

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Salam al-Fayyad. Photo: ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images

 On her debut trip to the Middle East last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went out of her way to repeatedly single out Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as a vital American partner.  So why did Fayyad announce his resignation only days after she left? And what does his (possible) departure mean for Clinton’s Palestinian strategy?

 The back-story, for those who missed it over the weekend:  Fayyad announced on Saturday that he was submitting his resignation, effective the end of March at the latest, in order to facilitate the achievement of a Palestinian government of national unity. (Mahmoud Abbas has technically not accepted the resignation.)  While it was presented as a goodwill gesture to Hamas, Hamas dismissed the announcement as insignificant because, in their view, he never had any legitimacy to begin with (he never won a vote of confidence in the non-functional Palestinian Parliament).  All eyes now turn to Cairo, where Palestinian delegates to the reconciliation committees are convening to begin a planned 10 days of talks aimed at nailing down a national unity government ahead of the Doha Arab Summit scheduled for the end of the month. 

 On its face, this appears like a devastating blow to American strategy.  After all, Fayyad is arguably even more important than Mahmoud Abbas to the attempts to build up the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank while isolating Hamas.  At Sharm al-Shaykh, Hillary Clinton seemed to go out of her way to promote Fayyad alongside Abbas as an essential partner in the reconstruction of Gaza.  His departure, as the Christian Science Monitor puts it, “threatens to scuttle hopes within the Obama administration of having Mr. Fayyad head a new national unity government of Hamas and Fatah Party rivals that would be held together by technocrats above the political fray.” 

But I wonder.  I’ve been quite skeptical about Hillary Clinton’s public position of “West Bank First, Fatah Only”, and it would be easy to take Fayyad’s resignation as decisive evidence in favor of my skepticism.  But I’m not at all ready to jump to that conclusion.  Presumably Fayyad wouldn’t sandbag his primary patron without advance notice… or at least without a really good reason.  For what it’s worth, I talked to three different well-connected Arab journalists about this today, and every single one assumed that his resignation was coordinated with the U.S. 

 Why did he submit his resignation, then?  There are a number of theories making the rounds. The official line is that he did it to pave the way towards a workable Palestinian national unity government.  Some argue that he did it out of personal rivalry with Abbas, and that he intends to make a bid for leadership.  Some analysts think he’s bluffing:  by “resigning” he demonstrates his indispensibility, so he’s just waiting to be invited back.  On the other hand, he’s not popular with either Hamas or Fatah, and if that’s the case it could backfire.

  And some point to his frustration at Israeli and American conditions on use of offered funds. For instance, the New  York Times quotes a senior adviser to Fayyad saying that “it was also intended as “a shock to the system” and a message to Israel and the United States… Fayyad felt that he was being “taken for granted,” especially because Israel had continued settlement construction in the West Bank and the United States had not done enough to stop this.”  But after the show of American support for him personally at Sharm al-Shaykh, that sounds dubious.

 My best guess right now is that Fayyad submitted his resignation to build his political credentials and to demonstrate his indispensibility ahead of this week’s Hamas-Fatah talks.  Whether those talks succeed or fail — and I am getting wildly different reads on those talks from different sources — his pre-emptive resignation would leave him in a stronger position come April. 

 Fayyad knows that Western insistence on his presence is his strongest — perhaps his only — card, and that a lot of Arab actors (including his putative allies in Fatah) would be happy to see him gone.  Hillary’s visit marks the highest point of his power, as she left no doubt of his importance in American eyes.  By resigning now he perhaps hopes to force the unity negotiators to face up to the fact that the unity government won’t be accepted by the West without him. 

 The European position may be more important than the American one here.   Clinton has signaled that the U.S. does not support a unity government which includes Hamas, since it would not on its face meet the Quartet pre-conditions.  While the Europeans have been a bit more flexible on Hamas participation in a unity government, they have also backed Fayyad. As a spokeswoman for Javier Solana told the Financial Times:  “We want to see the creation of a government of national unity but we also want to continue to see Salam Fayyad in a very senior role… There is no doubt that his presence has been fundamental for the degree of trust that the international community now has in the Palestinian Authority.”

 That combination of openness to a unity government and backing of Fayyad could potentially sway Hamas negotiators at the Cairo talks. If the rest of the Sharm al-Shaykh participants agree to work with such a new government, the $4.6 billion (the pledged $5.5 billion less the American $900 million) would be more than enough to begin reconstructing Gaza.    

 The Arab media right now still seems very uncertain about what’s really going on here, and so am I.   So take this as just my best guess about what Fayyad may have been thinking and how this might play out.  It certainly reads on first blush as a major setback for America’s Palestinian strategy, but if it opens the door to the creation of a unity government with with the West (with or without direct participation by the U.S.) can work then it might be quite the opposite.  So let’s keep an eye on Cairo. 

UPDATE:  just after I wrote this, I saw that Helena Cobban had posted a writeup of her interview with Fayyad from a few weeks ago.  Check it out… And Ghassan Khatib here, who sees a similar logic in Fayyad’s move. 

 Twitter: @abuaardvark
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