The making of Salam Fayyad
Palestinian Authority prime minister Salam Fayyad is the man of the moment, according to a lot of recent Middle East coverage in the western media. From The Economist and the LA Times, to The Huffington Post and Harper’s, the man reportedly referred to by Shimon Peres as a “Palestinian Ben-Gurion” is certainly getting a lot of column inches. Thomas Friedman has lauded what he calls “Fayyadism”, while Newsweek published an extensive report on the PM’s performance described by Tony Blair as “absolutely first class”.
One reason being offered by observers for all of this publicity is that Fayyad is preparing the ground for a run at the Palestinian presidency, should elections be held in 2010. This is certainly the implication in the Newsweek report, which describes Fayyad’s journeying across the West Bank – “grinning for the cameras and snipping endless red ribbons” – as having the “manic air of the final days of a political campaign”.
Helena Cobban, veteran Middle East journalist, thinks it is “evident that Fayyad is running for something” – he “seems to have a lot of what American politicians call ‘walking around money’ to spread around”. Some thus think a direct challenge to President Mahmoud Abbas is in the works, a possibility that is suspected by at least some Fatah members and is perhaps behind some decidedly unsubtle domestic political manoeuvring.
On the one hand, Fayyad has some important cards he can play, the main one being the significant trust placed in his leadership by the US and international community. In an aid-dependent society, being a favourite of the donors – and being seen as the favourite – is a big plus.
A senior faculty member at an-Najah University in Nablus pointed out to me that there was “no one else” who “would have dared” to make a similarly grandiose speech as Fayyad did this summer – “he is the most powerful guy in the leadership right now”. In the short term, Fayyad can also point to the improvements in security in cities like Nablus welcomed by ordinary people weary from Israeli siege and the free hand previously enjoyed by armed gangs.
Yet for a presidential bid, Fayyad would face significant obstacles to victory, notably his lack of either a support base or affiliation to the main parties, Fatah and Hamas. A Ramallah insider familiar with PA-Israel negotiations told me that he did not believe Fayyad would be Abbas’s opponent in the next election, and that the plaudits from western capitals were not surprising: “the international community was already a fan of Fayyad from when he was picked to be finance minister under Arafat”.
It could be then, that Fayyad is simply trying to shore up his position as PM, protecting himself from any challenges that might come from elements in Fatah encouraged and invigorated after the Fatah party conference in Bethlehem. In public, Fayyad is at pains to keep things diplomatic, to the point that, in an interview with Asharq al-Awsat on 1 September, the PM denied even knowing about opposition to his plans from Fatah leaders. But since the party conference, there are some in Fatah keen for a member of the newly-formed central committee to be PM.
A third explanation for the western media’s love of all things Fayyad is that it forms an important part of talking up the Obama-driven “peace process”. It is possible to see Fayyad’s focus on security and development as sitting well with Netanyahu’s idea of an “economic peace”, and in the desperation to find a hint of progress, a US-educated, ex-World Bank man of “moderation” is a useful way for the western media to avoid the gloom of discussing the Gaza Strip, Hamas, and Israeli intransigence over settlement growth. Not to mention Fayyad’s own patchy record on civil liberties.
Fayyad has proven himself a canny political operator. In March, in an episode now often forgotten, Fayyad offered Abu Mazen his resignation, a move I observed at the time was most probably being done “for the benefit of none other than Fayyad himself”. At the same time as Fayyad was (temporarily) quitting, a poll revealed that only 24% of Palestinians saw the appointed PM’s government as legitimate. Back in charge, Fayyad’s western media blitz and photo-op traversing of the West Bank are the moves of a man seeking to create a mandate from almost nothing.
First published in The Guardian’s Comment is free.