There has been only one politician in the region that senior Israel Defense Forces officials have truly admired in recent years. No, it's not Israel's current prime minister, nor even his predecessor; it's outgoing Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
Fayyad, whose successor was announced on Sunday, is a dyed-in-the-wool Palestinian patriot. Still, it's difficult to think of another foreign statesman who has made such a significant contribution lately to the security of the State of Israel, and in particular to the public's sense of personal security.
Over the course of his tenure, Fayyad's praises were sung by the many high-ranking IDF officers - their numbers reached the high single digits - who were in contact with him.
It's a contribution that has largely remained hidden. Fayyad took great care not to be seen as "collaborating" with Israel, while neither the Netanyahu nor Olmert governments wanted to be seen as relying on the Palestinian Authority in security matters.
But let's face facts: After the joint efforts of the IDF and the Shin Bet security service ended the terror war of the second intifada, it was the renewed coordination with the Palestinian security forces that guaranteed the continuation of this calm to make the past few years the safest, on both sides of the Green Line, since the start of the second intifada in 2000.
Fayyad, who was appointed in 2007, was the one who led this process; he took control of the various competing organizations and restored law and order to the streets of Jenin and of Nablus. A few months after Fayyad entered office then-GOC Central Command Gadi Shamni launched a broad attack on the dawa, the civil infrastructure of Hamas in the West Bank.
Fayyad told Israel he was prepared to take the reins in this sphere as well. The IDF halted its operation and it was the PA, not Israel, that blocked Hamas' success in the West Bank soon after the Islamic organization completed its takeover of the Gaza Strip.
Col. (res.) Ronen Cohen, who was the Central Command's chief intelligence officer during this period, says the Israelis were impressed by Fayyad's ability to reignite the Palestinian economy, to win the trust of the donor nations and to lead a broad effort to build institutions for a future state, from the ground up.
Credit for the quiet in the West Bank, Cohen says, belongs more to Fayyad than to any other individual.
"When he entered office, we called him a technocrat," Cohen recalls. "Gradually, we learned to appreciate his presence in the field, his total involvement, his attention to detail. It's hard to believe that anyone will be able to fill those big shoes."
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sees in the man he named to replace Fayyad, Rami Hamdallah, a paler version of the outgoing premier, without what he viewed as Fayyad's main disadvantage: his independence and refusal to submit to the dictates of Fatah, Abbas' movement.
Hamdallah is considered a moderate, whose lack of military background should ease his acceptance by the West. But his background in economics is also nothing like Fayyad's, and it's doubtful that he has his predecessor's charisma, which only grew as Fayyad's self-confidence in the post increased.
Until Sunday's surprise announcement of Hamdallah's appointment, some Israelis still believed that Abbas and Fayyad would iron out their differences. But it seems that in the end Abbas decided to accept the resignation that Fayyad tendered two months ago.
Hamdallah's appointment may have contained a double signal to Hamas, which had long been gunning for Fayyad's head: one, that Abbas is committed to advancing the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas; and two, that if necessary he will take advantage of Hamdallah's experience as secretary general of the Palestinian Central Elections Commission and will prepare the ground for a new Palestinian election, a development that presumably is cause for apprehension within Hamas.
The possibility that Fayyad will be called back into the picture at some point, if the PA's economic situation worsens, cannot be ruled out, despite the personal animosity against him even among Fatah leaders.
All this is taking place, of course, as the United States ratchets up its involvement in the peace process. In a report it issued last week on the situation within the PA, the International Crisis Group expressed what could be called cautious pessimism.
The nongovernmental organization does not forecast an immediate third intifada in the territories, in part because of what is sees as the inherent personal stake of many West Bank Palestinians in the rehabilitation of the Palestinian economy.
On the other hand, the report's authors warn against the weakening of the PA, "the gradual hollowing out of institutions that were never particularly strong," as they put it.
They also warn that in the event the American efforts to restart the peace talks fail this could expedite the next confrontation with Israel - exactly the situation that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is hoping to head off with his new initiative.
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