There were two explosions at the end of April in the Middle East, one military, one political, and neither got the attention it deserved.
The first was Grad rocket fire from Gaza that sent civilians rushing to shelter in southern Israel. Since the peace agreement last November, cross-border attacks have diminished. Hamas blames the now-sporadic attacks on an extremist group of Salafists, and that may be so, but Hamas runs Gaza and must take responsibility. Start counting how long it takes for any of the usual critics of Israel to rebuke Hamas for risking the fragile peace.
No one was injured by the Grads. That was pure luck. The intention was to kill and maim. But the shock waves from the second explosion, the resignation of Salem Fayyad as Palestinian prime minister, will persist. That bodes ill for the well-being of the Palestinian people and lingering hopes for a two-state political solution, just as the new Secretary of State John Kerry's three-day visit to Israel and the West Bank raises hopes of revived peace talks. Fayyad has been prime minister for six years, after five years as finance minister. He has made a huge difference on the West Bank. He is a member of the third party, independent of Fatah, and an internationally respected economist. By the time he became finance minister, the donor countries – the U.S., the Arab League and the European Union – were fed up with how much of their contributions was being siphoned off into the private pockets of many of the leaders of the Palestinian Authority. He inherited a Ministry of Finance that was not in control of the Palestinian Authority's receipts. There was a profusion of spending centers. Those with an eye on enrichment and building personal power stole so much that the entire P.A. was on the edge of collapse.
Fayyad, as finance minister and then prime minister, conducted a relatively honest government that didn't waste the money given to it. In fact, Fayyad's embrace of economic transparency was critical to attracting increased international aid. He put the P.A. budget on the Internet. It was a symbol of his reforming zeal, sound administration, and intolerance of corruption. He brought a Western notion of efficiency, productivity and clean government. He made the prospects of a two-state solution brighter. He resisted the folly of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who grand-standed his P.A. bid for U.N. recognition at the General Assembly last November. Fayyad reasoned correctly that theatrics would impede Palestinian progress, and he was so right. Congress further delayed U.S. aid. Israel stopped the monthly transfers of tax rebates it collects on the P.A.'s behalf. And for what? For a resolution that accomplished nothing!
Fayyad pressed hard for contributions to be restored, since without foreign aid the West Bank is not viable: Foreign aid accounts for some 14 percent of GDP. Yet Fayyad has a vision for a prosperous, independent Palestinian state, a self-sustaining entity, built on private enterprise and innovation of the kind that has made its neighbor so renowned for being, in Bill Gates's words, "by many measures, the country, relative to its population, that's done the most to contribute to the technology revolution." (Those achievements are recorded in the new book "Tiny Dynamo" by Marcella Rosen). Fayyad appreciates the real potential in Palestine if peace can be achieved and security restrictions relaxed: His vision for the future state, he has said, is not that of "a beggar nation, dependent on the world to feed our people."
On the contrary, Fayyad was dedicated to building state institutions, including effective and responsible security forces – security cooperation with Israel became the norm, and enabled Israel to lift many of its West Bank checkpoints – not to mention hundreds of community development programs, schools and health facilities. By the end of 2011, public support for his government was at 53 percent, way ahead of the Hamas government in Gaza, according to Khalil Shikaki's Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.
What now? Secretary Kerry, after his meetings with the Israeli prime minister and Palestinian president, says they agreed on very specific efforts to promote economic development "and to remove some of the bottlenecks and barriers" to commerce, specific plans to be announced in a week. That is all to the good, but the secretary rightly stressed that these cannot be in lieu of getting back on the political track.
Will Fayyad's successor inspire sufficient trust among U.S. and European donors? Any drift back to pre-Fayyad economic corruption will signal more poverty for Palestinians. That, and any slackening of security, will bring back a climate for terrorism that has previously marked the Palestinian regime and/or institute an authoritarian political system, which would be a disaster for the West Bank. It would produce an economic crisis and undermine Israelis' confidence that they can entrust their own future to a Palestinian state that would be a reasonable neighbor.
Can the Palestinians find a man like Fayyad, who understands what state building is about, who clearly sees that violence will get nowhere, who will dedicate himself to achieving a state by building institution by institution? Can a new prime minister create a law-abiding national police force? Under Fayyad, the police were told to keep the peace with an eye toward the best future for the people, not to protect Fatah or confront the Israeli forces. The risk is that the police may now revert to what they were under Yasser Arafat, ending Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation and in fact returning to the point of confrontation.
The American goal remains a two-state solution, a decent, democratic, Palestinian state at peace with Israel. But today there is no obvious, nationally recognized figure or cadre of respected senior officials to hold the P.A. together. There is a serious risk that Fatah and Hamas will eventually form a unity government, leaving the Israelis to feel they have no partner. Ironically, it was the Fatah officials who resented Fayyad and came to regard him as an adversary.
Fayyad's resignation is a huge blow to prospects for a re-resumed negotiation for a two-state solution. Beyond that, if it is possible to persuade him to return to his previous position as head of finance, there will have to be an expanded commitment of donor funds, particularly from the Arab governments, because Fayyad's acceptance came about as long as he kept aid flowing.
Otherwise, those who nourished the kleptocracy will be at the center of the Palestinian government. No one can now be sure where the money goes, given the corruption among Fatah officials and, without Fayyad to fight it, that corruption will grow. Equally critical is to retain Fayyad's policy that police officers are made to understand that they are to keep the peace and help build a state.
Washington has lost a trusted ally in Fayyad. The administration pressed him to stay, rightly believing that Fayyad had an important role to play in seeing that their wishes were carried out. U.S. attempts to promote various economic projects in the West Bank will be much more difficult to achieve without a credible partner. What is more, we concentrated far more on the negotiating track than on actually reviving and building Palestinian institutions. Our priority has always been on the political benefits of a comprehensive agreement signed on the White House lawn.
Fayyad said that a Palestinian state is something that will have "to grow on both sides as a reality," and "from the bottom up and the top down." It must be created inch by inch, on the ground. Without him, the prospects have dimmed.
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