Sunday, October 4, 2009

Mr. Palestine

With confidence in the peace process at a near-historic low the Israeli and Palestinian regimes have increased their reliance on unilateral moves in order to achieve their territorial and political aspirations. The most recent example of this trend is the 65-page comprehensive development plan put forth by appointed Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. The document outlines unilateral steps the Palestinian Authority should take in order to create a de facto state in the West Bank by 2011 and as Dr. Fayyad explained, "end the occupation, despite the occupation."

Dr. Fayyad explained in an interview with the Times of London, "We have decided to be proactive, to expedite the end of the occupation by working very hard to build positive facts on the ground, consistent with having our state emerge as a fact that cannot be ignored. This is our agenda, and we want to pursue it doggedly."

The Fayyad Plan focuses on both political and economic development in the West Bank in order to build state institutions and increase foreign investment opportunities with the obvious overarching goal of ushering in a de facto Palestinian independent state.

The document is remarkable in its thoroughness. It reads like a political manifesto, painstakingly detailing the goals of the Palestinian national movement and specific measures the Palestinian Authority should take to increase economic growth and reform political institutions in the Palestinian Territories. It is a comprehensive reform package as well, not just representing a shopping list of what Dr. Fayyad would like to see accomplished, but including dozens of lists of detailed steps each specific ministry of the Palestinian Authority can take to implement the needed reforms.

The Fayyad Plan was devised to achieve several key aims: as a hedge against the failure of U.S.-mediated final status negotiations, to build the legitimacy of the PNA in the eyes of the Palestinian people in time for possible parliamentary elections in 2010, to curry support for Palestinian statehood from the international community, and to pressure the Israeli government with the threat of a unilateral declaration of independence amidst building international displeasure with the continuation of the occupation of the Palestinian Territories.

Much has been said about Dr. Fayyad and the document that bears his name. Thomas Friedman, writing in the New York Times coined the term “Fayyadism” to refer to Dr. Fayyad’s ideology to win support by building accountable, democratic institutions and then lauded it as, “the most exciting new idea in Arab governance ever.” The U.S. and UN both expressed similar satisfaction with the Prime Minister’s announcement. The Fayyad Plan represents an attempt at “self-empowerment” and, “challenges other players to step up to their responsibilities,” remarked the UN’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process Robert Serry. The Middle East Quartet, composed of the EU, U.S., UN, and Russia has also embraced the Fayyad Plan.

The response from Israelis and Hamas leaders has been decidedly more negative. The official Israeli position has been to ignore the announcement of the Fayyad Plan, though several key ministers, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, have publicly derided the plan as a threat of Palestinian unilateralism. Hamas, entrenched in the Gaza Strip, is also publicly opposed to the plan, commenting that it follows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s concept of “economic peace” too closely.

With the release of such an ambitious and concrete plan for Palestinian economic and political development it is no wonder many commentators are beginning to view Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as a bold reformer, a defender of accountable, transparent democracy – an anti-Arafat even. The Fayyad Plan addresses nearly all of the criticisms Palestinian, Israeli, and international actors have lobbed at it. Aside from the continuing Israeli occupation and economic blockade of the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian national movement has its fair share of serious problems that preclude the attainment of a just and lasting peace agreement. The most pressing of these problems, the political and geographic split between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Fateh in the West Bank is a distinctly Palestinian problem that is regrettably left unmentioned in Dr. Fayyad’s document.

Institutions of Dr. Fayyad’s Palestinian National Authority suffer from rampant corruption, a serious lack of transparency, failure to promote the rule of law, less-than-professional behavior of Palestinian police and security forces, economic uncertainty, and creeping authoritarianism – all problems that must be addressed in order to build the credibility and legitimacy for an independent Palestinian state.

Can “Mr. Palestine” boldly build a democratic de facto Palestinian state in two years?

Dr. Fayyad represents a fresh face in Palestinian politics and seems to be a very promising politician, one that could potentially encourage the development of democratic principles in Palestine. His Third Way party ran on a platform of ending corruption and fighting for democracy. The problem is that many analysts misread Fayyad’s autonomy in the caretaker government and his support among the Palestinian population. Salam Fayyad is just not the prominent, charismatic politician ready to crush corruption and authoritarianism in the PA that many analysts hope to believe. Winning only 2.4% of the vote in the 2006 parliamentary elections, Dr. Fayyad is little more than an untested technocrat with little political base.

Dr. Fayyad has accomplished very little democratic political development during his time in Palestinian politics and has pursued or acquiesced to some outright undemocratic policies. Earlier this year a broadcasting ban was placed on the popular Al-Jazeera television network by the PNA for reporting negative comments about late Fateh leader Yasser Arafat by a prominent Fateh official. Fayyad was largely implicated as the driving force behind the ban, ordering the Attorney General to pursue charges against the popular news network. Under considerable popular pressure, Fayyad relented and allowed Al-Jazeera to resume broadcasting, but it’s hard to imagine how muzzling the press is good for democracy. More recently, Dr. Fayyad said nothing about the undemocratic reelection of Mahmoud Abbas as head of Fateh at the party’s first internal election in decades. The entire spectacle brought back all too many bad memories of Arafat’s authoritarian, unaccountable rule over the areas of the Palestinian Territories he controlled.

Recent Palestinian surveys shed some light on Fayyad’s support among Palestinians. A solid 48% oppose the Fayyad caretaker government as opposed to 42% who support it. An abysmal 32% regard the performance of his government as good or very good. Ismail Haniyeh’s Hamas-led de facto regime in the Gaza Strip beat Dr. Fayyad, with 41% rating it as good or very good.

It seems rather clear that Fayyad is being used as window dressing on Mr. Abbas’ presidency to give his government and his policies greater legitimacy, to curry favor with the West, and to give the appearance that corruption is being curbed. Salam Fayyad has precious little autonomy within the caretaker government and is rarely allowed to pursue his own policies. His reform plan, while laudable and sorely needed, is unlikely to be implemented because little in the way of accountable political structures exist in the PNA. Building a culture of transparency and accountability in an unelected government ruling by decree is impossible in the current political climate.

The Fayyad Plan will not allow the Palestinians to take hold of their own destiny and forge a de facto Palestinian state. The ambitious plan will require either Israeli ambivalence toward the plan or outright endorsement of the PNA’s desire to reform its institutions and create political “facts on the ground” to compete with Israel’s growing settlement enterprise. Either way, the Israeli government will have a great deal of influence in what the Palestinians are able to accomplish.

The plan contains an economic development package that Dr. Fayyad, given his economic credentials, would be well-placed to administer. The problem with this however, is that the economic reforms the Fayyad Plan lays out are impossible for the Palestinian National Authority to implement without Israeli approval of the project.

Two major infrastructure projects Dr. Fayyad hopes to build are a high-speed rail to Jordan and a new international airport in the Jordan Valley. Neither the border between the West Bank and Jordan nor the Jordan Valley are currently controlled by the PNA and thus would require major changes in Israeli policy to allow for the transfer of land and major construction projects to commence. The PNA simply lacks the authority to implement the reforms Dr. Fayyad envisions for the economy, and the need to cater to Israeli authorities for permission and permits to pursue development projects cuts deeply into the Palestinian public’s respect for and perception of legitimacy of their government and leaders.

The Fayyad Plan also includes a generous tax scheme to encourage foreign direct investment in the Palestinian economy. While tax benefits could certainly help in this realm, political uncertainty, continued Israeli occupation, and the current security environment greatly discourage any real investment.

Salam Fayyad’s plan for economic development is full of many tested ideas for improving the Palestinian economic picture, however, it fails to acknowledge the extent to which many of the most important projects will rest on Israeli approval. In an attempt to hedge against the failure of political negotiations between Israel and the PNA and forge a unilateral path to Palestinian independence, the Fayyad Plan sets up the PNA for endless, bickering talks over minute economic matters with various less-than-friendly Israeli leaders who will attempt to extract concessions from the Palestinians for each major project.

Democratic principles have been severely and continuously repressed by both Hamas and the Fateh-led Palestinian Authority since Hamas’ takeover of Gaza in 2007. Fayyad’s stint as Prime Minister has done nothing to end corruption or provide accountable government. The “national emergency” of Palestinian factionalism has simply provided the justification for both regimes to stifle dissent, make arbitrary arrests, and consolidate the power of the state in the hands of a few leaders. Palestine is not becoming more democratic but less and Fayyad has been able to do very little to reverse this trend. His comprehensive Fayyad Plan is a catalogue of reforms sorely needed in the Palestinian Territories, yet it seems clear the current political impasse will prohibit its implementation, and Dr. Fayyad is not the Mr. Palestine some want him to be.