On April 13, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad of the Palestinian Authority resigned. It was an easy development to miss, but not one to be ignored. It was very bad news, because Salam Fayyad was the “Arab Spring” before there was an Arab Spring.
That is, he was what the Arab Spring was supposed to lead to: a new generation of decent Arab leaders whose primary focus would be the human development of their own people, not the enrichment of their family, tribe, sect or party. That Fayyad’s brand of noncorrupt, institution-focused leadership was not sufficiently supported by other Palestinian leaders, the Arab states, Israel and America is really depressing. It does not bode well for the revolutions in Egypt, Syria or Tunisia – none of which has a Fayyad-quality leader at the helm.
Who is Salam Fayyad? A former economist at the International Monetary Fund, he first came to prominence when he was named finance minister of the Palestinian Authority in 2002, after donors got fed up seeing their contributions diverted for corruption.
Shortly after he became prime minister in 2007, I coined the term “Fayyadism” – the all-too-rare notion that an Arab leader’s legitimacy should be based not on slogans or resistance to Israel and the West or on personality cults or security services, but on delivering decent, transparent, accountable governance.
Fayyad “dried up all slush accounts and went against Yasser Arafat’s orders by insisting on paying all security officials by direct bank account (rather than with cash given to their commanders based on a questionable list of personnel),” wrote Daoud Kuttab, a prominent Palestinian journalist, in The Jewish Daily Forward. “Fayyad also became the first Arab government official to publish his government’s entire budget online, ushering a new transparency not seen in the entire Arab region.”
Fayyad also played the leading role in rebuilding the Palestinian security services in the West Bank, which even the Israeli military grew to respect, and in trying to build Palestinian institutions, on the argument that the more Palestinians built their institutions – finance, police, social services – the more Israel’s denial of them of a state will be unsustainable.
“Fayyad’s embrace of economic transparency, which included U.S.-led audits, was instrumental in attracting increased international aid,” noted David Makovsky, director of the project on the Middle East peace process at The Washington Institute. “Despite a deep worldwide recession, the IMF reported 9 percent growth for the West Bank between 2008 and 2010. ... As late as the second half of 2011, public support for Fayyad’s government was at 53 percent, 19 points ahead of the Hamas government in Gaza.”
Hamas hated Fayyad, and many Palestinian Authority officials were jealous of him, but success protected him until 2011. President Mahmoud Abbas, frustrated by the right-wing Israeli government’s refusal to strike a land-for-peace deal, decided to seek recognition of Palestinian statehood by the United Nations. The United States retaliated by cutting off aid, and Israel did so by withholding Palestinian tax receipts. I thought it foolish for Abbas to go to the U.N., but I thought it irresponsible for America’s Congress to cut off aid to the Palestinians for doing so – when we’ve never retaliated for the even more obstructionist building of settlements by Israel.
The loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid tanked the Palestinian economy. Public-sector workers went unpaid, and Fayyad had to impose austerity. Abbas and some of the old guard in his Fatah party, who never liked Fayyadism, “used Fayyad as a scapegoat for Palestinian economic troubles, in part out of resentment at his efforts to constrain patronage and corruption,” noted Makovsky.
“Blaming Fayyad for the latest downturn is especially audacious,” he added. After all, last fall, Fayyad “broke his hand in a meeting with Fatah members as he banged it on the table, vehemently arguing that it was irresponsible to go to the U.N. unless there were sufficient reserves to cover an aid slowdown.” Fayyad finally got fed up and quit.
My four takeaways:
• For Palestinians, particularly Abbas and Fatah, who so easily turned their most effective executive into a scapegoat, if there is no place for a Salam Fayyad-type in your leadership, an independent state will forever elude you.
• Hamas and the Israeli settlers are both really happy today. Fayyad’s aim to build a decent Palestinian state in the West Bank, at peace with Israel, was a huge threat to both of them. They both prefer permanent struggle so they both can claim there is no one to talk to on the other side and, therefore, they never have to change policies.
• Thanks, American Congress and Israeli government. Your mindless, repeated cutoffs of cash to Fayyad’s government helped undermine the best Palestinian peace partner Israel and the U.S. ever had. Nice job.
• “There is nothing inevitable about a liberal order emerging from any of these Arab awakenings,” argues the pollster Craig Charney. Indeed, to produce that outcome takes someone like a Fayyad with the consistent help of external parties as well as a loyal base at home ready to see it through. In the end, Fayyad had neither. Add another nail in the coffin of the two-state solution.Thomas Friedman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist.