The resignation of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is a pivotal moment in the history of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Given that it is the product of an internal Palestinian political struggle rather than one in which Jews and Arabs are grappling for power, that may seem an exaggeration. But its significance should not be underestimated. The exit of the Palestinian technocrat lays bare the collapse of what the New York Times called “Fayyadism”—the hope that Palestinian nationalism would be refocused on development and coexistence rather than violence. Without the fig leaf of responsibility that Fayyad provided for the PA, the idea that it is anything but the same corrupt regime fatally compromised by connections with terror rings false.
The inability of Fayyad to either generate much public support among the people of the West Bank or to use his credentials as a respected international figure to outmaneuver Abbas is a tragedy for the Palestinian people. His failure dooms them to a choice between the venal and incompetent cadres of Fatah or the bloody Islamist tyranny of Hamas (which has always regarded the banishment of Fayyad from office as a precondition for any unity scheme with Abbas and the PA). That is unfortunate. The only question is whether those pushing Israel to further empower the now Fayyad-less PA will draw the only possible conclusion from these events and understand that the two-state solution that could conceivably solve the conflict must await a sea change in Palestinian politics that will allow another Fayyad to emerge and succeed.
There will be those who will inevitably blame Israel for Fayyad’s resignation since many in the world are incapable of interpreting any event that is construed as negative without seeing it as a manifestation of the malign influence of the Jewish state. But this is nonsense. Fayyad has always had the strong support of both the United States (under both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations) and of Israel, which despite its suspicions about the PA has seen him as an essential interlocutor and partner. His problem is that Abbas’s Fatah Party viewed him as an obstacle to both their drive for political hegemony in the West Bank as well as to the continuation of their crooked patronage schemes that diverted foreign aid money into the pockets of their leaders. As Jonathan Schanzer, who understands Palestinian politics as well as anybody writing about the subject in the West, wrote on the Foundation for Defense of Democracies blog this week as events unfolded:
With the most powerful faction in the West Bank gunning for Fayyad, it is likely a question of when, not if, the Palestinian premier departs. This would be a blow to Palestinian reform efforts, but also shine a spotlight on the leadership deficit in the West Bank.
It should be conceded that for those who see the question of Israeli-Palestinian peace solely from the frame of reference of the Jewish state’s problems in controlling large numbers of Arabs, the question of who runs a Palestinian government has always been considered irrelevant. Peace Now and other groups that venerated the Oslo Accords and the peace process were perfectly willing to hand over territory to a murderer and thief like Yasir Arafat and opposed all efforts to hold him accountable. So it should be anticipated that they, and others who push for Israeli withdrawals in order to weaken the Jewish state rather than to supposedly strengthen it by ending the “occupation,” will not care much whether the face of Palestinian nationalism is Fayyad, Abbas (currently serving the ninth year of the four-year term as president that he was elected to) or one of Hamas’s Islamists.
But the lack of a Fayyad matters because without him or someone like him, there is no pretense that what the peace processers seek to create in the West Bank is not a state living in peace with Israel (no matter where its borders are drawn) or its other Arab neighbors but a kleptocracy run by terrorists. If it is the former, then there is no doubt that a majority of the Israeli people would be willing to make painful compromises to achieve peace. If it is the latter, that is not only bad news for the Palestinian people who must suffer the depredations such tyrants will impose on them but it is also a guarantee that the terms of any peace deal signed with them will not be observed.
This conundrum goes to the heart of the original motivations behind the Oslo process that created the PA in 1993.
Shimon Peres may have conceived the Oslo process as a path to a “New Middle East” in which Israel and a Palestinian state led by Fayyads would create a Benelux-like enclave in the Middle East. The late Yitzhak Rabin went along with Peres’s Oslo gambit from a different point of view. He thought handing the territories over to Arafat would work because the old terrorist would be willing to settle for statehood in only part of the country and would then be free to quash Hamas and any other terrorists without the interference of a Supreme Court or gadfly groups like B’Tselem that inhibited Israeli counter-terror measures.
As it turns out, both of these men were wrong. Peres’s hopes about what the PA would become were delusional. But the hard-boiled Rabin was just as wrong to think a Palestinian state led by corrupt terrorists isn’t antithetical to the entire concept of two states for two peoples living alongside each other in peace. That was just as true for the slightly more presentable Abbas and his Fatah colleagues as it was for Arafat. This has already been amply demonstrated, first by Arafat’s use of terrorism and then by what has happened in Gaza where an independent Palestinian state in all but name already exists.
Fayyad’s tragedy was not just that both Fatah and Hamas wanted to be rid of him but that he was a man with virtually no support among ordinary Palestinians. So long as shedding Jewish blood is the main factor that gives a Palestinian political party credibility, men like Fayyad will have no chance no matter how much they are applauded by Americans or Israelis. The collapse of his effort to change Palestinian politics is therefore a key moment that should signal to the world that it must dispense with the theories of both Peres and Rabin and cease ignoring reality in favor of illusions.
That is something that groups and governments determined to keep funneling cash into the coffers of the PA and to push Israel to make concessions to it must understand. Until they do, the discussion about the peace process will continue to be a tragic waste of time and effort.