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How did Palestine lose its prime minister?

As the Palestinian factions meet in Cairo for crucial reconciliation talks this week, analysts are still trying to decode the resignation of Salam Fayyad from his role as prime minister.

The standard assessment, such as that reported by the BBC on the Cairo unity talks, is that Fayyad’s resignation was “intended to pave the way for the formation of a national unity government”. Why would removing Fayyad help? Because, goes the theory, such a step is an appeasement of Hamas, who have always maintained that Fayyad – appointed rather than elected – was an “illegitimate” prime minister.

But the narrative of Fayyad’s removal being a concession to Hamas for the sake of political reconciliation is not adequate to convey everything that is happening here. For a start, Fayyad is also unpopular with many in Fatah. Some have attributed this to the perception of Fayyad’s reforms of the PA as “carried out at the expense of Fatah’s standing” with most of the international aid “going directly to Fayad’s government and not into the bank accounts of [Fatah’s] leaders in Ramallah”.

There is also the suggestion that Abu Mazen feels threatened by Fayyad’s importance, and worries about a bid for the presidency. Yet it is just as likely that the Fatah rank and file simply share Hamas’s disillusionment with Fayyad’s intimacy with American and Israeli officials.

Contrary to the impression that Fayyad’s departure strikes a blow to US policy, there is the suggestion in some quarters that Fayyad’s resignation was coordinated with Washington. This points to the strongest theory of all: that Fayyad’s resignation was done for the benefit of none other than Fayyad himself.

Polls have consistently shown that Palestinians prioritise national unity and an end to the bitter political infighting above all other issues. The Europeans, meanwhile, have made it known that a unity government including Hamas would still be accepted – provided that Fayyad heads it.

Fayyad could thus be presenting himself to the Palestinian public as the only one who can make a unity government truly succeed, through gaining international acceptance. Commentators such as Marc Lynch have noted that a “pre-emptive” resignation leaves Fayyad in a “stronger position” post-Cairo talks. Whether the reconciliation talks succeed or fail, Fayyad is now in a win-win scenario:

If the national reconciliation dialogue reaches agreement, he will be in good shape because he contributed to paving the way for that agreement. And if the dialogue fails and consequently President Mahmoud Abbas asks him to continue as caretaker prime minister, it will put him in a stronger position vis-a-vis Fatah, which has not been facilitating his mission until now.

To be considered the PA official “closest to the Americans” and the go-to guy for both foreign diplomats and Israelis might gain you respectability in European capitals, but for the Palestinian people, there is quite a different feeling when the prime minister is embraced (literally) by the likes of Elliot Abrams.

The same poll that testified to the Palestinian desire for factional reconciliation also indicated Fayyad’s lack of popularity. The positive assessment of Fayyad’s government was less than that of Haniyeh’s, despite the fact that the latter is internationally isolated and in many respects practically non-functional. Moreover, over a third of those surveyed said Haniyeh’s was the legitimate government, in contrast to 24% for Fayyad.

At the same time as resigning, Fayyad has also been more public in his criticism of Israeli policies in the occupied territories. There is the comparison with Iraq’s Nuri al-Maliki, and maybe Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai, leaders who were parachuted into power under US influence and who have since sought to establish independent, nationalist credentials by speaking out on the questions that touch a nerve with the people.

Fayyad’s resignation may indeed be important, symbolically and practically, for the potential success of the reconciliation talks (a tricky enough prospect in any case). But overall, the main rationale behind Fayyad’s decision seems to be to save his own political skin. It is doubtful, however, whether complaining to Hillary Clinton about settlements, and positioning oneself as the “independent technocrat” to head up a unity government, will be enough to rescue his reputation across the occupied territories.

First published in the Guardian’s Comment is free.

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