Building a Palestinian state

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The World

RAMALLAH, West Bank — It was a couple of minutes after 10 on a Saturday morning when the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, stepped onto a rainy stage in Bethlehem and voiced his support for the enemy.

Fayyad urged the people not to hold all Israelis responsible for the actions of some fanatical settlers. The day before some of them had burned down a Palestinian olive grove.

The audience at the Olive Harvest Festival clapped their hands cautiously. Maybe they were expecting something else: rallying cries, slogans, boasting. But their prime minister is not the inciting type.

Fayyad is the big unknown in the eternal haggling for a Palestinian state – and yet he is also the darling of the West. Some call him “Palestine’s great hope" and Israeli President Shimon Peres even compares him to Ben Gurion, Israel's iconic first prime minister. Although not elected, Fayyad is responsible for most Palestinian governance, at least in the West Bank.

Fayyad is now traveling a road that he hopes will lead him — without detours — to a state by next summer.

Even as Arab League leaders declare the peace talks to be over, Fayyad is thinking about building a future for what he hopes will someday be a sovereign nation.

“I think what we really should focus on right now is completing the task of getting ready for statehood,” he said in an interview with GlobalPost.

More governance equals more security equals better economy equals own state. This is more or less Fayyad’s vision — it is a cool calculation that doesn't include armed resistance, something he said has done little to benefit the Palestinian people. His government program, dated Aug. 25, 2009, is titled: “Palestine: Ending the occupation, establishing the state.”

To spread his message, Fayyad is often out in the field — a constant election campaign for someone who is not elected. Sometimes, in reverence to the much-beloved Yasser Arafat, the former Palestinian leader, Fayyad sports the checkered black and white headscarf.

“But this is not really his thing,” said a friend of his. “He can’t even tie that scarf properly.”

Fayyad is 58-years-old, married, and has three kids. Born in a village near Nablus, he later received his doctorate degree in economics from the University of Texas. He then worked for the World Bank and was the Palestinian representative to the International Monetary Fund until Arafat made him his secretary of finance.

While reforming the finances of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Fayyad earned a reputation as a man of action and integrity. Companions describe him as modest, determined and incorruptible.

This reputation has helped insure a constant flow of money to the Palestinian Authority from major donors. With that cash, Fayyad has managed to lubricate the wheels of Palestinian bureaucracy, making them turn more smoothly.

His government has so far launched more than 1,000 development projects, from basic infrastructure to a new airport near Jericho.

“A state,” Fayyad is fond of saying, “can’t emerge in a vacuum. It has to be built on strong institutions and services for the people.”

But despite all the success, technocratic Fayyad has not always been able to reach the hearts of his people. If elections were held right now, his party, The Third Way, would only garner 3 to 5 percent of the vote, according to Kahlil Shakili, one of the region’s most prominent pollsters.

The people, Shakili said, see Fayyad in a positive way. But more like a manager, a provider of services, than a leader of the national cause. He lacks the legitimacy and the legacy of the armed resistance of Fatah or Hamas, Shakili said.

Here, battle scars still count for more than an education.

In his office in Ramallah, Fayyad sat in a windowless room, cooled down to American temperatures. He lit a Winston cigarette; on the table there was an ashtray as big as a wheel.

“I am just doing my job,” he said, sinking deeper into the brown leather sofa.

In the beginning, the job was completely chaotic. After Hamas won the national elections in 2006 and subsequently chased Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, and his Fatah party out of Gaza, the United States urged Abbas to from an emergency government.

Abbas turned to Fayyad and appointed him prime minister, although his party only got 2.4 percent of the votes.

Many foreign leaders view the Palestinian Authority as an important bulwark against Hamas, the Palestinian extremist group. And Fayyad has shown that he can deliver. In his first three months on the job, the Palestinian Authority started a campaign against all people and things affiliated with Hamas. For the Israelis, this meant the West Bank would require less of their attention — and that is how Fayyad ultimately sold it to his people.

“As long as Israel can do as they please in the West Bank,” Shakili said, “the people consider the [Palestinian Authority] a collaborator. And as a collaborator, you cannot build a state.”

The concept of armed resistance could not be stranger to Fayyad, a former banker. And the sober bureaucrat is fed up with the legends of the intifada.

“Our experience has demonstrated amply that this strategy does not work,” he said. It is perhaps no coincidence that a book by Martin Luther King Jr. was lying on his office table.

While he lit up his next cigarette, Fayyad talked about the Texas Longhorns, about the fact that he does not eat lunch (“not good for energy”) and that two of his kids are attending college in the United States. If he wants to lend emphasis to a phrase, he likes to say: “See what I mean?”

“Violence tarnishes your fight for freedom,” Fayyad said, a sentence straight out of King’s book.

Fayyad is well aware that his program could collapse like a house of cards. But at the moment, according to Israel’s security service, Shin Bet, attacks against Israelis are at their lowest since 2000.

The presence of the Israeli Army in the West Bank, meanwhile, is at his lowest since the 1980s.