Nearly a week after the resignation of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Washington is still coming to terms with what happened and what a post-Fayyad era might mean. To many, Fayyad’s departure has dealt a major blow to the seven-year project he oversaw to build the institutions of a future Palestinian state, and hence to the prospect of peaceful settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. According to one Washington analyst, Fayyad’s departure represents an “early defeat for Secretary [of State John] Kerry” as well as his boss. “For the last four years,” opined the analyst, “the administration has elected to work with Abbas at the expense of Fayyad.” This view, while common in Washington policy circles, stems from a basic misreading of both Fayyad’s role and the reasons behind its termination.
The end of the Fayyad era was not only inevitable, but was always bound to elicit far more anxiety in Washington, London and Brussels than in Ramallah, Nablus, or Hebron—not because Palestinians don’t want or need institutions but because Fayyad’s institution-building project, affectionately known as “Fayyadism,” had run its course and, more importantly, was fundamentally out of step with Palestinian realities and politics.
To be sure, Fayyad’s was always an impossible job. And in the end both he and his economic recovery and institution-building plans were doomed by a perfect storm of internal and external forces—an inept and corrupt Palestinian leadership, an all-consuming and repressive Israeli occupation and a deeply flawed and dysfunctional “peace process.”
The Palestinian Authority (PA) is itself a “government” unlike any other; it has neither an army nor sovereignty over its territory. Meanwhile, its very institutions, which remain almost entirely dependent on foreign largesse, are themselves of questionable legitimacy. President Mahmoud Abbas’s term is technically expired, while the Palestinian parliament has not convened in five years. All this in the context of a debilitating division between the Fatah-dominated West Bank and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, which—thanks to U.S. and Israeli opposition to internal Palestinian reconciliation—has become part and parcel of the U.S.-led “peace process.”
Fayyad’s government was further constrained by a severe fiscal crisis triggered by growing domestic debt and the drying up of international donor funds. Last, but certainly not least, were the myriad restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupation itself, including the hundreds of impediments to movement and access necessitated by Israel’s vast and ever-expanding settlement enterprise in the West Bank.
Even against such overwhelming odds, Fayyad’s efforts proved to be stunningly successful. As early as April 2011, the World Bank had effectively “certified” the PA as being “well positioned to establish a state at any time in the near future.” Since then, the World Bank has continued to reaffirm that conclusion, while warning that “Israeli restrictions and controls… have a detrimental impact not only on economic growth but also constrain the PA’s ability to develop its institutions as well as limit politically its room for maneuver on tougher reforms.”
Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have long since lost faith in the Oslo process, of which “Fayyadism” was merely the latest incarnation. Last September’s “cost of living” protests were an early warning signal, particularly the ease with which popular anger against Salam Fayyad’s austerity measures morphed into generalized demands for the cancellation of the Oslo Accords themselves. Having reached the upper limits of what could be achieved, and in the absence of a genuine political progress, it was only natural that the process would turn in on itself.
Among other things, the September protests raised questions about the value of building governing institutions while overlooking—if not actively reinforcing—the broader dysfunctional context in which they operated. Why should 36 percent of the PA’s budget go to security while only 2 percent is spent on agriculture? Likewise, what value was there in building institutions that cannot reach 40 percent of its population in Gaza? Or that hasn’t had a functioning parliament in nearly six years? How far can an economic recovery plan go when Palestinians are prohibited from accessing or developing 60 percent of the West Bank in the resource-rich Jordan Valley? In short, what value was there in building the institutions of a state that never comes into being?
Fayyad’s “institution-building” was never intended to be a stand-alone project. Its international sponsors, including the United States, understood that its success would depend on progress made along parallel diplomatic and political tracks. With both a credible negotiations process and developments in Palestinian politics in a state of “peace process”-imposed paralysis, however, Fayyadism became a substitute for both meaningful diplomatic efforts to end the Palestinians’ predicament and the domestic political means to achieve it.
All of which raises an even more fundamental contradiction. Fayyad is rightly credited with several major accomplishments, including restoring basic law and order, scaling back corruption, and reestablishing a measure of public confidence in Palestinian institutions. However, if these accomplishments cannot withstand Fayyad’s absence—as many now fear they won’t—then they were never institutions to begin with. Any policy that is so bound up in a single solitary mortal being is by definition untenable—underscoring both the absence of strategic foresight in the U.S.-led “peace process” and a stunning lack of regard for domestic Palestinian politics.
America’s casual disdain for domestic Palestinian politics was summed up rather succinctly by DOS spokeswoman Victoria Nuland in February 2012. Responding to a question about internal reconciliation efforts, Nuland put it thus: “What matters to us and what matters… to the process that we are trying to keep on track here is that Abbas remains the president, that Fayyad remains the prime minister.” The same infantilizing attitude was displayed when word first broke of Fayyad’s possible resignation, in which a State Department prematurely (and incorrectly) declared, “As far as I know he’s sticking around.” American interference in the domestic politics of other countries is certainly not unheard of, including in Israel. But whereas in Israel and elsewhere such interventions are the exception, in Palestine they are the rule.
Despite his numerous accomplishments, Fayyad was simply no longer viable from the standpoint of Palestinian domestic politics. While Fatah and Hamas have seldom agreed on anything, the two warring factions were united in their staunch opposition to Fayyad’s rule, as was a growing segment of the Palestinian populace. For all his popularity in diplomatic circles, Fayyad never had any significant domestic base of support. His “Third Way” party won only two seats in the last parliamentary elections and continues to poll at under one percentage point, while his approval ratings have steadily declined. Fayyad was by no means despised by the masses, but nor was he seen as the messiah-like figure held up by the West.
Whether or not domestic opposition to Fayyad is wise or warranted in the eyes of the U.S. or other western governments is wholly beside the point. Just because Palestinians do not have a state does not mean they do not have politics or that their leaders are immune from public opinion and other domestic pressures.
Indeed, for many in the U.S. and Israel, “Fayyadism” is seen not just as a pathway to Palestinian statehood but as a means of “reinventing” Palestinian politics along the way—which may also explain much of the anxiety surrounding his departure. Without Fayyad and his institution-building project, the U.S., Israel and the rest of the international community come face-to-face with the core of the conflict—the occupation, settlements, Jerusalem, refugees—in the form of a genuine diplomatic process aimed at ending the conflict, and hence with Palestinian politics as well.
The fact that Palestinians do not have a state is not because they do not have enough, or the right kind of, institutions. Those institutions exist, whether in the form of the PA or the ostensibly more representative and authoritative umbrella of the PLO—the Palestine Liberation Organization. But for those institutions to function properly, they must have domestic political support and legitimacy. For that to happen, they must be seen as working for and not against Palestinian basic aspirations—namely ending the occupation and achieving self-determination.
In short, it is the absence of a credible peace process as well as an inability to come to terms with Palestinian politics that has led to the erosion of existing Palestinian institutions, and not the other way around.