Salam Fayyad’s resignation as Palestinian premier seen as blow to peace plan

McClatchy NewspapersApril 15, 2013 

— The resignation of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad over the weekend has raised doubts about the stability of the Palestinian government and cast a shadow over the new U.S.-led diplomatic push to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Fayyad, who was beloved and praised by the West while increasingly unpopular within Palestinian society, had served as Palestinian prime minister for eight years. He was credited with stabilizing key aspects of the Palestinian economy and implementing crucial measures with the support of the United States that were intended to provide an underpinning for an eventual Palestinian state.

"Fayyad was a key linchpin, at least in the U.S. peace plan, which called for economic development in the Palestinian territories that they hoped Fayyad would personally oversee," said one senior Palestinian official in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority government. He spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to comment on what he called the "political turmoil" in the West Bank.

"It is doubtful that the U.S. can continue as planned given this sudden development," the official said.

Among the first to mourn his departure was U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who’d met with Fayyad just five days before the prime minister resigned Saturday.

"Would I prefer that he weren’t leaving? Sure, because you have continuity,” Kerry said. “He has been sick. He’s tired. He’s been at this seven years. He has kids in school. He’s anxious to carve his own path here, and I respect that.”

On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in Washington that the United States didn’t expect Fayyad’s departure to derail peace efforts. “While we greatly appreciate the work of Prime Minister Fayyad, it is important to remember that this is about the aspirations of the Palestinian people; it’s not about one person,” Carney said.

Long-standing disagreements between Fayyad and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are being cited as a key reason behind the resignation, though Palestinian officials said the situation was more complicated.

“Abbas-Fayyad relations have been tense for years but Fayyad had to be kept on as prime minister to keep Western donors happy,” said Nadia Hijab, the director of al Shabaka, a Palestinian policy research center. But many blamed the same policies that kept the United States and other Western countries happy for the dismal economy in the Palestinian-ruled West Bank.

For example, Fayyad embarked on a campaign to professionalize the Palestinian police force, hiring officers based on merit and imposing discipline for previously common practices such as accepting bribes.

But what was perceived in the West as an effort to set higher standards was widely resented because it ended a system that had been based on tribal relationships. Cutting off bribes deprived police officers of a steady stream of income that many had come to depend on.

Fayyad also introduced new taxes in the West Bank that for the first time generated revenue for the Palestinian Authority.

Hijab said Fayyad’s policies were blamed “for multiplying the deprivation of the 46-year Israeli occupation.” The policies were “especially unpopular” among members of the Fatah movement, which had enjoyed years of patronage and is the base of Abbas’ support.

Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the Jerusalem Fund and the Palestine Center in Washington, said Fayyad’s resignation was indicative of a broader problem of Western-backed politicians in the Arab world.

"Western leaders intervened in an effort to keep Fayyad on board while Palestinians continue to have no say in choosing their leaders,” he said. “The fact that Washington believes it should direct Palestinian domestic politics while marginalized Palestinians remain disenfranchised and the Israelis elect one pro-settlement government after the other with consistent American support is but another damning indictment of failed American mediation."

Some Palestinian officials said that Fayyad’s demise, in fact, was the result of policies the United States had pursued in the wake of the Palestinian Authority’s efforts to win nonmember observer state status at the United Nations, a move that the United States and Israel vociferously opposed.

“The U.S. may be unhappy that Fayyad is leaving, but they pushed him into that corner with their policies,” said one official who’s close to Fayyad, pointing out that many of the problems in the Palestinian economy that were blamed on Fayyad emerged only when, as punishment for the U.N. bid, Israel withheld tax revenues it had collected on the Palestinians’ behalf and the United States canceled several key programs, including the provision of schoolbooks and police training.

"If he was so important to the U.S., they should have taken measures to support him, but instead they did the opposite,” said the official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “The United States and Israel must reap what they sow. If they continue to treat the Palestinians as an afterthought, they will drive out anyone who wants to work with them."

Lesley Clark contributed to this report from Washington.

Sheera Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: sfrenkel@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @sheeraf

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