Palestine's Great Hope
The emergence of Salam Fayyad is the best thing to happen to the Middle East in ages.
Israeli admirers say that Fayyad is merely doing what any politician in the region has to do: indulging in the theatrics of "resistance" in order to maintain credibility with the people. Many Palestinians wonder at Fayyad's true political motives; the settlement-boycott movement began at the grass-roots level and, depending on whom you talk to, the Palestinian Authority has either hijacked it in order to claim credit for the idea or infiltrated it in order to tame its more radical exponents and forestall a worst-case scenario: the outbreak of a third intifada. As one of Fayyad's own officials recently told The Economist, that dreaded contingency is all too real, particularly beyond the well-patrolled cities of the West Bank.
Fayyad the politician may have to triangulate himself between extremists and moderates (an activity with which Ben Gurion was also quite familiar), but Fayyad the economist is still acting in a manner wholly consistent with de facto statehood. The commitment to avoiding another eruption of violence is built right into this nationalist agenda and is non-negotiable: It's no accident that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recently called the second intifada "one of our wor s t mistakes." If another were to break out tomorrow, it would scupper everything Fayyad has spent the last 18 months building. De facto failed statehood is not something he or his constituents can afford at this point.
For a man who prefers Brooks Brothers suits and fat cigars to kaffiyehs and Kalashnikovs, Fayyad also faces a bit of an image problem: He doesn't conform to the Orientalist conception of a Palestinian leader. Israeli Arab Jerusalem Post correspondent Khaled Abu Toameh argues that Fayyad will never be a true leader of his people because he hasn't spent a single day in an Israeli prison. Hamas has called for his prosecution for "collaborating" with Israel, and Fatah hard-liners have derided de facto statehood as a "governmental intifada"—and they don't mean that as a compliment. Fayyad is not a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, still the only body legally entitled, under the Oslo Interim Agreement, to negotiate with Israel toward a final status agreement. *
De facto statehood is decidedly at odds with the kind of grand-gesture, revolutionary romanticism that, from T.E. Lawrence on, is supposed to be the sine qua non of Arab independence. According to Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, Fayyad has done a dangerous thing, all right: He has given Palestinians agency, responsibility, and much to lose, creating a new paradigm that many die-hard adherents to the "cause" find threatening to their idealism. As Ibish puts it, "nation-building is supposed to be a glorious top-down endeavour, not a mundane and workaday set of policies."
Correction, June 14, 2010: This piece originally and erroneously stated that Salam Fayyad lost a bid to join the executive committee of the PLO in August 2009. Despite reports to the contrary, he did not run in that election. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Michael Weiss is the director of communications at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank that promotes democratic geopolitics. He is also the spokesman for Just Journalism, which examines how Israel and the Middle East are portrayed in the U.K. media.
Photograph of Salam Fayyad by Rick Gershon/Getty Images