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US loses a West Bank darling with resignation of Palestinian prime minister

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who resigned this weekend, was liked by the US, but he had less approval at home, where many saw him as a lackey of the West.

The weekend resignation of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad calls into question not only the political career of a Western darling, but also the paradigm he pioneered: self-empowerment instead of victimhood.

“Fayyadism,” as it became known, championed the idea that the Palestinian people should start acting like a state, even before Israel recognized their sovereignty. It was a bold gambit in a territory where the dominant narrative blames Israel for everything from dispossessing a people of their land to rising unemployment.

Mr. Fayyad, a former World Bank official, won the approval of the West with his transparency on financial matters. But he made plenty of enemies at home in the West Bank, where he was blamed for providing a fig leaf for the Israeli occupation and doing the bidding of the West at the expense of his own people’s nationalist ambitions. Six years after his appointment, it seems to have caught up with him.

Some blame Israel’s occupation for dooming his economic programs; others point to jealous members of PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party, who accused Fayyad of sidelining Fatah and eying the top post for himself. 

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But Abdullah Abdullah, a member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council that urged Abbas to replace Fayyad earlier this month – likely precipitating his resignation – says it wasn’t personal, and it wasn’t a power grab.

“We understand of course, that our [Palestinian] Authority is almost without authority. We know that Israel controls our economy, our movement, our land – everything,” he says, but adds that a wave of strikes amid the ongoing economic crisis demonstrated the need for a new government with new policies. “We as a popular movement have to take into account the sentiments of the people…. This government did not meet their requirements.”

Fayyad, whose government had only a 25 percent approval rating in a March poll, tendered his resignation on April 11. Abbas accepted it two days later – though he has asked Fayyad to stay on until a new government is formed. While Fayyad has offered to resign before, and even now doesn’t have an exact end date for his tenure, most see this break as definitive.

“There was a final divorce,” says Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, chairman of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA) in East Jerusalem.

‘Gone rogue’

Fayyad served as finance minister under the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and was appointed prime minister in 2007, after Hamas violently ousted Fatah from Gaza and the two rival factions began a period of divided rule that continues until today. Since the political split suspended the work of the Palestinian parliament, Fayyad was never approved by elected lawmakers.

While Abbas was technically his boss, the Western tendency to always talk about Abbas and Fayyad as a unit “upgraded the prime minister’s position to be equal to that of the president,” says Dr. Abdul-Hadi. Various Fatah factions began to chafe under his government, which initially excluded Fatah altogether and then slowly introduced some members – but generally those seen as too mild to challenge Fayyad.

Last year, Fatah pushed Fayyad to relinquish the portfolio of finance minister, which he had held in addition to the premiership, arguing that it was unhealthy for democracy to have such a concentration of power. In May 2012, Fayyad complied, and political independent Nabeel Kassis was chosen for the job.

Though smart and likeable, Mr. Kassis was a nuclear physicist by training and was buffeted by what some said was the most severe Palestinian economic crisis since the PA was created in 1994. Protests swept the West Bank and the PA repeatedly failed to pay its employees for weeks after their salaries were due.

Last month, Mr. Kassis resigned, saying politicians and unions had rejected his proposed austerity measures to stave off a projected $1.4 billion deficit for 2013.

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Some say that that Kassis quit after a showdown with Fayyad, who was used to running things himself and was reluctant to hand over the reins.

“It really signaled to Abbas that this guy has kind of gone rogue, and also that he’s never going to allow anybody to work with him,” says someone close to Abbas who requested anonymity due to an increasing crackdown on dissent in the West Bank.  

A sign that democracy is working?

Last week US Secretary of State John Kerry was in Jerusalem urging Israeli leaders to help boost the Palestinian economy as a confidence-building measure for restarting peace talks. Now, with trusted Fayyad on the way out, there is speculation that there may be less pressure for such moves.

“The PA will have a new person, who has less sympathy and trust [from] the West,” says political scientist Menachem Klein of Bar Ilan University, which could give Israel a freer hand to continue expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

But Mr. Kerry said yesterday that despite Fayyad’s resignation the US is “totally committed to moving forward with the economic thing no matter what.”

“The West Bank is there, Palestinian aspirations are there, the government is there,” he added. “And in order to be a viable government, there’s got to be more than one person that you can do business with.”

Indeed, proponents of Fayyad’s resignation say it is a healthy sign of democracy that the PA’s longest-serving prime minister is stepping down, despite US pressure on Abbas not to let Fayyad go.

“There are plenty of educated, capable individuals we can serve as prime minister,” says Mr. Abdullah. “We don’t want a repetition of the [US] mistake … that they’re trying to treat the Palestinian Authority as a banana republic, that they have to determine for us who should be a prime minister and who shouldn’t be.”

Still, the US is the largest single donor to the PA, and how it will move forward is not entirely clear.

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“This will definitely delay … if not pause efforts to really renew an economic initiative,” says Robert Danin of the Council of Foreign Relations, a former State Department official in the region who has known Fayyad for more than a decade. “I don’t think it necessarily means the end of Fayyadism, but I fear that it does. I don’t see any other prominent figures espousing the same kind of can-do to … pursue a peaceful, cooperative path [with Israel] but at the same time one that is about self-empowerment.”