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Inside Kerry’s effort to save Salam Fayyad

John Kerry unsuccessfully tried to prevent the resignation of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and now the uncertainty in the Palestinian leadership is adding uncertainty to the U.S. secretary of state’s larger effort to kickstart new peace negotiations. Fayyad, who is well known in the West and credited for gains in establishing relatively stability and ...

ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images
ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images

John Kerry unsuccessfully tried to prevent the resignation of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and now the uncertainty in the Palestinian leadership is adding uncertainty to the U.S. secretary of state's larger effort to kickstart new peace negotiations.

Fayyad, who is well known in the West and credited for gains in establishing relatively stability and prosperity in the West Bank, will continue on as a caretaker prime minister following his resignation announcement earlier this month. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has broad leeway in choosing Fayyad's replacement; he could choose himself or select a new interim prime minister ahead of new elections, but the schedule for those elections is totally unclear.

John Kerry unsuccessfully tried to prevent the resignation of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and now the uncertainty in the Palestinian leadership is adding uncertainty to the U.S. secretary of state’s larger effort to kickstart new peace negotiations.

Fayyad, who is well known in the West and credited for gains in establishing relatively stability and prosperity in the West Bank, will continue on as a caretaker prime minister following his resignation announcement earlier this month. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has broad leeway in choosing Fayyad’s replacement; he could choose himself or select a new interim prime minister ahead of new elections, but the schedule for those elections is totally unclear.

Before Fayyad resigned, Kerry made multiple efforts to convince the technocratic Palestinian prime minister to stay and to convince Abbas to keep him around, close associates of Fayyad say. Kerry implored both leaders to put aside their longstanding differences and continue to work together during his recent trip to the region. Kerry also placed a phone call to Abbas urging him to reject Fayyad’s resignation.

"John Kerry has had a great relationship with Fayyad and wanted him to stay and asked him to stay and asked the Palestinian president not to accept his resignation," Ziad Asali, the president and founder of the American Task Force for Palestine, told The Cable.

But rather than heed Kerry’s advice, members of Abbas’s Fatah faction turned Kerry’s plea into a criticism of Kerry, according to Asali.

"A lot of people in Fatah accused the U.S. of applying pressure on Abbas not to accept Fayyad’s resignation," Asali said. "This was considered an insult to the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people and an humiliation because it was an American interference in internal Palestinian politics."

Fatah leader Sufian Abu Zayda said that U.S. "stupidity" had contributed to Fayyad’s resignation.

"Fayyad did not want to be seen as someone who has been imposed on the Palestinians and Fatah by the Americans," Abu Zayda said. "On the other hand, Abbas cannot afford to be seen as someone who succumbed to U.S. pressure."

Fatah leader Azzam al-Ahmad described Kerry’s call to Abbas as "a humiliating and degrading interference by the United States in internal Palestinian affairs."

Asali rejected those assertions and said that Kerry had every right to try to keep Fayyad in place, not only because Fayyad had great relationships with several Western countries, but also because he was seen as a reliable steward for the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid the PA receives from international donors.

"I think it was perfectly OK for Kerry to do what he did. Everybody interferes with Palestinian affairs. It has been the case for decades. That’s Palestinian politics," he said. "Salam Fayyad is the person who was at ease in the international community."

Still, Kerry’s critics in Washington maintain that the effort to save Fayyad represented a diplomatic setback. Several reports said that Fayyad had attempted to resign in late February, before President Barack Obama’s trip to the region, but the administration convinced him to hold off. But ultimately, the Abbas-Fayyad split was irreparable.

"Fayyad’s departure was an unfortunate early defeat for Secretary Kerry. Kerry and President Obama did everything they could to keep Fayyad there, but it was too late. The divisions between the two Palestinian figures were too deep," said Jonathan Schanzer, senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. "Kerry’s intervention was not a mistake. The problem was that these efforts came too late. For the last four years, the administration has elected to work with Abbas at the expense of Fayyad."

Not only will Fayyad’s departure hurt international donor confidence but it also may bode poorly for America’s ability to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table with Israel and prevent the Palestinians from pursuing greater recognition at U.N. organizations, an effort spearheaded by Abbas against U.S. wishes, Schanzer said.

A big part of Kerry’s new Mideast peace push is to promote economic development in the West Bank, a process that would run parallel to a political process but that could serve to build confidence between the Israeli and Palestinian governments. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said this week that the U.S. government would still move forward with that initiative despite Fayyad’s departure.

"He’s been a key partner of ours. He’s someone we’ve worked very well with, the international community has worked very well with, and he’s been highly effective at helping to move forward the Palestinian economy and build institutions," said Ventrell. "Having said that, he’s one individual… the Palestinian people and the work of the Palestinian Authority are bigger than any one individual, and we’re committed to moving forward with economic and institution-building efforts in the West Bank, and we’ll make that clear to Congress as well." 

Asked if the State Department was worried that Congress might be less willing to give the PA money now that Fayyad is gone, Ventrell said, "We are not concerned."

Speaking at a Brookings Institution luncheon Thursday, former Bush administration official Elliott Abrams said that Fayyad’s departure would mean that Palestinian security forces, which had become increasingly professional, would once again become "Fatah goon squads." 

Asali said the ball is now in Abbas’s court and that the Palestinian leader must choose a replacement for Fayyad who can attempt to fill Fayyad’s role both at home and abroad.

"The perception of the international community that their conditions for continued donation would have to include a transparent and accountable administration, so in that sense, if they are not satisfied they will not donate," he said. "In an ideal world Abbas would have to have to get someone credible and competent and someone who would get the support of the donor community as well as the Palestinian people."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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