The West's lofty expectations for Salam Fayyad went far beyond what he was ever able to deliver.
If Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s political career came to an end today, he could still proudly claim to be Palestine’s most accomplished prime minister ever. The problem is that all of his predecessors — Ahmad Hilmi, Mahmud Abbas, Ahmad Qurei, and Ismail Haniyya — were impotent, transitory, or frustrated occupants of the post, and collectively set a very low bar. But judged by the enormous expectations and hoopla his Western cheerleaders burdened him with, Fayyad will leave only disappointment behind him.
The prime minister’s departure from the Palestinian political scene appears likely but not inevitable. With Fatah and Hamas striving to form a unity government, Fayyad may very well be sacrificed on the altar of Palestinian unity.
Neither the sunny nor the cynical view of Fayyad is fair. His optimistic smile obscured an impossible situation: Fayyad’s main achievement has not been to build the structures of a Palestinian state, but to stave off the collapse of those structures that did exist. An equally important achievement was his ability to persuade Western observers that he was doing much more. In the process, however, he raised expectations far beyond his ability to deliver.
What Fayyad Did Not Do: In enumerating Fayyad’s accomplishments, it is necessary — if churlish — to begin by explaining what Fayyad did not accomplish.
First, he did not build any institutions. The state-like political structures now in the West Bank and Gaza were either built during the heyday of the Oslo Process in the 1990s or in the more distant days of Jordanian and British rule.
Second, he did not bring Palestinians to the brink of statehood. The Palestinian Authority, for all its problems, was actually far more ready for statehood on the eve of the Second Intifada in 1999 than it is on the possible eve of the third in 2011. A dozen years ago, Palestine had full security control of its cities, a set of institutions that united the West Bank and Gaza, a flourishing civil society, and a set of legitimate structures for writing authoritative laws and implementing them. Those accomplishments were in retreat long before Fayyad took office, and he was hardly able to restore them.
Third, Fayyad did not strengthen the rule of law. He could not have done so, since the only legitimate law-making body the Palestinians have, the Legislative Council, has not met since he came to power.
Fourth, Fayyad did not prove to Palestinians that they should rely on themselves. Just the opposite. He showed Palestinians that if they relied on him, foreigners would show them the money. At the heady days at the beginning of Oslo, the United States pledged half a billion dollars for the entire five-year process during which the parties were supposed to negotiate a permanent agreement. They have given Fayyad more than that almost every year that he has been in office. The Europeans have opened the purse strings for him too. It is utterly baffling that a figure so completely dependent on Western diplomatic and financial support would be seen by outsiders as an icon of Palestinian self-help.
Finally, he did not bring economic development to the West Bank. What he made possible was a real but unsustainable recovery based on aid and relaxation of travel restrictions. Year-to-year economic indicators in both the West Bank and Gaza are dependent on foreign assistance, and even more on the political and security situation. Fayyad can thus take some credit for the upturn, but Hamas can make a similar claim for the mild improvements in Gaza since Israel relaxed some of the closure last year. Neither has laid the groundwork for real development or attraction of foreign investment. Nor could they in the stultifying and uncertain political environment.
None of these failings was personal. Fayyad could not have accomplished any of these goals even had he wanted to. He led half of a dysfunctional Palestinian Authority, governed scattered bits of territory in the West Bank, and was forced to rattle the cup constantly in order to pay the bills.
What Fayyad Did Do: However, if Fayyad could not walk on water, he did an almost miraculous job of not drowning. This is not to damn Fayyad with faint praise; the prime minister assumed control of a Palestinian Authority that was unable to pay all of its salaries, deeply mistrusted by Israel, and treated as irrelevant by many Palestinians.
His first and most impressive accomplishment was to gain the trust of Western governments. The unrealistic hopes placed in his premiership were partly a testimony to the esteem in which he was held in some international circles. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spoken of her pride in his efforts and informed Palestinian youth that Fayyad has given them hope. No diplomatic statement from Western governments is complete without a kind word for his accomplishments. Fayyad was even able to earn a grudging Israeli trust through renewed security cooperation and efforts to rebuild the Palestinian security services. These accomplishments allowed him to pay government salaries, redeploy police, and attract enormous amounts of aid.
And Fayyad was able to win some modest victories in Palestinian governance. The security services became less partisan, public finances became more transparent (even without any domestic oversight), corruption likely decreased, pockets of the civil service were rebuilt on a more professional basis, and basic order in Palestinian cities was improved. When it comes to progress in these areas — sharply limited but still significant — Fayyad can even claim to have gone beyond maintenance to improving the Palestinian situation beyond where it stood in 1999.
The Poverty of Politics: All along, however, this was a difficult juggling act. Enthusiastic international support would continue only so long as it was possible to pretend that Fayyad was making dramatic gains; domestic acceptance of Fayyad was dependent on his continuing to pay salaries and provide for basic order. Pulling aside the curtain and revealing that Palestinians were not building a state thus risked undermining Western support for him, which would in turn remove the raison d’être of his premiership in Palestinian eyes.
Thus Fayyadism was a political house of cards. There was no domestic foundation for Fayyad’s efforts; for Palestinians, he was simply an unsolicited gift from the United States and Europe — a welcome one for some, but not for others. And to his international backers, Fayyad was completely frank about his limitations: His efforts, he said, would only pay off in the context of a meaningful diplomatic process that reinforced the drive toward statehood. This was an ingredient that has been missing for many years, and Fayyad was powerless to procure it.
Earlier this year, there were signs that Fayyad himself had begun to look for ways to escape Fayyadism. It was Fayyad, rather than Fatah and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who reached out to Hamas in February. The reconciliation file was quickly snatched out of his hands, however, and his hold on the premiership is now on the bargaining table.
What is remarkable, however, is how Fayyadism soldiered on in some Western eyes even after Fayyad himself had begun to distance himself from it. American pundits continued to trumpet his successes without missing a beat right up until the April reconciliation agreement. In March, Thomas Friedman was still writing about Fayyad’s gaining momentum and even upped the ante by claiming that his program posed the "biggest threat to Iran’s strategy." Meanwhile top policymakers continued to be mesmerized by Fayyad’s poll numbers, which were less bad than those of most other leaders, and simply ignored the hollowness at the core of their own policies. Nor did the polls translate into any kind of political party or movement that could have run in, much less won, an election — if one were ever held.
The Perils of Positive Thinking: For years, Fayyad’s soft talk and cheery dedication enabled policymakers throughout the world to ignore the brewing crisis. And this may be where Fayyad, despite his impressive management skills, did Palestinians a disservice.
In 2009, the incoming Obama administration was quickly lured into a set of approaches (many inherited from the Bush years) that proved their complete bankruptcy this year — ignoring Gaza and allowing its population to be squeezed hard, pretending that there was a meaningful Israeli-Palestinian negotiation process at hand, assuming that Hamas could be dealt with after the peace process and Fayyad had worked their magic, and making the paradoxical and erroneous assumption that the best way to build Palestinian institutions was to rely on a specific, virtuous individual.
Fayyad cannot be held primarily responsible for this collective self-delusion; at most, he facilitated it. And in the process he provided all actors with a breathing space that is now disappearing. Ultimately, the ones who convinced themselves he was capable of completely transforming Palestine are most responsible for squandering the brief respite his premiership offered.