"If only we could clone him," a senior U.S. official said to me recently, speaking about Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Held in great respect by foreigners, Fayyad may soon find himself out of a job if Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (also called Abu Mazen) forges a national unity government with Hamas. This past week, Fayyad sat down in Ramallah with the Washington Post's Lally Weymouth. Excerpts:
L.W.: What is going on with the formation of the Fatah-Hamas unity government? Does Palestinian Authority President Abu Mazen favor its creation? Does Hamas want it?
S.F.: The process has taken the form of what I call rounds of dialogue. Most recently, something came out under the heading of the Doha Declaration. It said there would be a government of technocrats, headed by President Abbas himself, for a transitional period during which preparation would take place for elections.
About three weeks ago, that understanding was adjusted in the course of another round of dialogue in Cairo, where there was a decoupling of the act of conducting elections from the act of putting together a government. Doha was signed by [Hamas leader] Khaled Meshal and Abu Mazen. But that agreement did not find support within Hamas in Gaza.
L.W.: So in Cairo the negotiators said there was no need to have elections after the formation of a national unity government?
S.F.: The link became a lot weaker under the Cairo formulation between the act of conducting elections and putting together this transitional government headed by Abu Mazen. ...
After the Doha Declaration, Hamas would not allow the independent elections commission to go to Gaza to update the voter registry. That has not been done for years now. But after the Cairo accord, which happened about three weeks ago, they allowed the commission to go and prepare for updating the registry. If you ask me, I am not convinced that there is seriousness about elections.
L.W.: On the part of Hamas? Or also on the part of Abu Mazen?
S.F.: On the part of Hamas for sure. I will just leave it there.
L.W.: Wasn't Abu Mazen elected a long time ago?
S.F.: He was elected in January of 2005.
L.W.: For one four-year term?
L.W.: And the parliament was elected when?
S.F.: In January 2006.
L.W.: And that was also for one four-year term?
S.F.: Yes, they are both overdue.
L.W.: What do people think about that?
S.F.: The key problem of the attempt at reconciliation is the lack of seriousness about elections for sure on the part of Hamas. It is a well-known fact borne out by various opinion polls that there has been a steady erosion in Hamas' standing, both in the West Bank and Gaza. I believe that is why they have been dodging elections.
L.W.: Because they would lose?
S.F.: That's a good reason.
L.W.: It's reported that Hamas wants to make inroads in the West Bank.
S.F.: It's true. Hamas ran the country—both Gaza and the West Bank—over the period of March 2006 to March 2007. It was a Hamas-only government. Their experience in government was not really very successful, and everyone knows it. There was a financial freeze placed on the Palestinian Authority. The banking system started to disintegrate. It was not a good experience. Then there was a national unity government for three months. I was in that government as finance minister. But then that government collapsed under the severe blow of the violent takeover by Hamas in Gaza. Since then, they have been the de facto authority in Gaza. ... And people have lived under that regime for five full years now. ...
[But] in a situation like we are in right now in Palestine, it doesn't mean they have no shot at winning elections.
L.W.: How is Fatah doing?
S.F.: In opinion polls, Fatah has recovered since 2006 some of the lost ground. What people don't know is that in 2006, in terms of percentage of overall vote, Fatah and Hamas had about the same percentage—about 44 percent for each of them.
L.W.: If Abu Mazen and Khaled Meshal form a national unity government, is your head the price of this union?
S.F.: From the very beginning, I viewed my role as a caretaker until there was a method by which the country could be put back together. I would not rule myself out of being in government in a situation where there is unity.
L.W.: So you would not rule yourself out?
S.F.: The reality is that there is no agreement to keep me if there is reconciliation. This puts me in a very awkward position. It is as if I am prime minister only for the period of separation. I am a unionist. We are not going to be able to have a Palestinian state so long as there is a separation between Gaza and the West Bank. We must unify our country.
L.W.: I heard you were thinking of forming your own party. Would you go into government in the future?
S.F.: That is definitely something I would not rule out. I would much prefer for that to be the outcome of an election. I do not think—as many wrongly do—that it is easier to govern without a legislature. I think it is totally wrong. My message is simple: We want people to be given the opportunity to exercise their full right to choose their leadership. And it's overdue. That's what really matters to me.
L.W.: Does anyone else inside Fatah or Hamas share your enthusiasm for elections? If so, how will elections come about?
S.F.: This is something I believe is going to happen, and I hope sooner rather than later. The more people are given the opportunity to express themselves on the issue, the more likely it is that elections will take place.
L.W.: Do you think people will take to the streets here like they did in Cairo? If Abu Mazen and Khaled Meshal can have a government and shuffle the deck around, why would they have an election?
S.F.: I think people may have a thing or two to say about that. I think people would beg to differ. People here yearn for the possibility to choose their leadership. We were among the first in the Arab world to have open, fair and inclusive elections. And I believe that our people should have that opportunity again, and I expect them to demand it.
L.W.: And you believe that they will?
S.F.: I believe it is their absolute right. How do we get to the point where we have elections? If it is going to be left up to the dialogue to produce this, that's not really going to do it. It is something that is going to have to really be forced on the system. People are not going to be patient forever, waiting for rounds of dialogue, one after the other.
L.W.: I know that President Abbas and Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu have been exchanging letters and that the chief Palestinian settlement negotiator, Saeb Erekat, and Israeli negotiator Yitzhak Molcho are [having meetings] in Washington, D.C.
S.F.: Sequentially, not simultaneously. Molcho was there last week, and Erekat is this week.
L.W.: Are they trying to reopen a dialogue on the peace process?
S.F.: In some form, maybe. Whether that will be adequately productive remains to be seen. I believe that's not where the focus should be. Where I believe the investment should be is on issues that pertain to our capacity to deliver services to our people, to improve governance [in order to] enhance our efforts in achieving statehood.
L.W.: You were against going to the United Nations last fall for recognition of the Palestinian state, weren't you?
S.F.: I am for any initiative that brings us closer to the day when we are able to live as free people in a country of our own. I was always preoccupied with what the reality on the ground is going to be in Palestine the day after the U.N. vote. Clearly, if there were not an effort to end the Israeli occupation, then the reality on the ground would be the same the day after. I don't need another declaration of statehood - we already have one.
L.W.: Do you think that Prime Minister Netanyahu is serious about ending the occupation?
S.F.: We have not seen the kind of movement on the ground that is consistent with projecting this belief. Going back to June 2009, Netanyahu signaled for the first time a willingness to accept a two-state solution concept. But in terms of projecting that into effective support for a two-state reality, there is a serious distance to be traveled. What is the alternative to the Palestinian state as a solution to this conflict? There is no meaningful alternative.
L.W.: So you don't see movement toward a two-state solution?
S.F.: It has been very difficult over the past two years. We have been stuck over the issue of continued settlement expansion, with that being a major obstruction to a resumption of talks. In this most recent round of activity, an effort is being exerted to see if there are some possibilities. I think to try is better than not to.
L.W.: Do you worry about Syria?
S.F.: Of course. The tragedy in Syria is the slaughtering of the people and the bloodshed. But there are ramifications that extend beyond Syria.
L.W.: What would you like to see the United States do?
S.F.: Many people think it is a matter of days or weeks for [President Bashar al-]Assad to go. What they don't think about is the world as he himself sees it. You are not looking at someone who thinks his days are numbered, or else he wouldn't be doing what he is doing. You are looking at someone who thinks that he has a shot at survival. And on good days, he thinks that he actually will survive. You ask yourself why, in a regime and a country where all this bloodshed is taking place, is there someone who still thinks they can make it? The answer lies in capitals like Moscow. Russia and China have prevented a consensus from forming at the Security Council. In this case, as in the case of Iran, the United States should spend more time thinking about what it should do to factor in Russia's desire to be treated like the Soviet Union once was. Russia needs to be engaged by the U.S.
The Palestinian Authority has had financial problems this year. There is a shortfall in external assistance from the region—not from the United States or Europe. It's not that we got nothing—there is just a shortfall.
L.W.: I heard you worked out a bridge loan with Stan Fischer, governor of the Bank of Israel?
S.F.: A meeting of the donor community happens twice a year; this time it was in Europe. I was given the floor, and I said, "We came here with a very deep financial crisis, and it is paralyzing us." I said either countries that have lived up to their pledges, like the European Union and the United States, could increase their contributions, which I know is not easy, or the region needs to come up with more money. Or the international community could make it possible for us to borrow money from the [International Monetary Fund] since we are undertaking an adjustment program that, if we were a country, would definitely qualify [us] for that kind of loan. But because we are not a member of the IMF, we don't have access to these funds. There must be something you can do. We are still pursuing it.
L.W.: You will really leave the government in such a dire situation?
S.F.: I am not going to go away. This is a dream for me. I don't have to be in government to pursue it and support it. It extends well beyond being in any position.
L.W.: So you will be back?
S.F.: I'm not going to go away.
L.W.: And maybe the Hamas-Fatah deal will never be made.
S.F.: Speculation now is that there will be difficulties. The problem that is often overlooked is that this on-again, off-again reconciliation produces a sense of transiency about the [Palestinian Authority]. Here's a government that is about to go. How are banks going to extend loans to us if they think we are not going to be in office next week? It produces a state of uncertainty. I am all for resolving this and deciding it in a swift way. This state of separation can be ended in only one way: elections. That's how this should be decided. Whatever the election outcome, it should be respected.
L.W.: You would run in the elections?
S.F.: I am not ruling it out. If I rate my prospects as reasonable, I will try my hand. I think it is doable.