David's Harp / Salam Fayyad: The Latest Victim of the Arab Spring

The PA prime minister's vision of a functioning, democratic Palestinian state was defeated by the realities of a new Middle East.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad spent his nearly six years in office between the Scylla of the Israeli occupation and Charybdis of Palestinian corruption and revolutionary romanticism. Despite his best efforts at navigation, he never quite succeeded in protecting the Palestinian Authority from frequently smashing up against both.

But in the end it was the Arab Spring that cast him overboard.

Fayyad is a strident nationalist, but unlike most of the Palestinian leadership, he separated a romantic yearning for violent revolution from his aspiration of achieving statehood. On his watch the Palestinian Authority cleaned up its finances and took a stab at uprooting corruption. He helped to bring back law and order to the West Bank and to embark on the statehood drive.

Given how badly the odds were stacked against him, Fayyad accomplished quite a lot. But it was not enough to turn the PA into some Middle Eastern Switzerland of proper governance. At home in the West Bank, Fayyad largely remained one-man show.

Take corruption. A 2010 law, for instance, made favoritism, nepotism and wasta (the Palestinian version of protekzia, i.e., favoritism) punishable crimes. But a 2011 poll by Aman, a Palestinian anti-corruption group, found that 41% of Palestinians still were soliciting wasta for public sector services. As of July 2012, when the report was published, no individual had been prosecuted, Aman noted. In a report of defense corruption, Transparency International, the global anti-corruption organization, graded the PA a D-minus (no smirking, please, Israel received a D-plus), noting among other things that in the absence of a functioning legislature, no one was providing any oversight.

Of course not: the Palestinian National Council hasn't met since 2007. In fact, despite the veneer of good governance, Fayyad wasn't presiding over a democratically elected government, with all the checks and balances that ensure a modicum of honesty among politicians.

It wasn't Fayyad's fault that Hamas seized control of Gaza, that elections haven't been held since 2006 and that he was occupying office in violation of Palestinian Basic Law. But Fayyad was operating in a world where the norms of a civil society were apparently less important to the Palestinian political class than is keeping power and engaging in revolutionary struggle.

Fayyad oversaw a brief era of economic growth during which real gross domestic product grew often at double-digit rates. His efforts at bringing order to Palestinian society deserve some credit for smoothing the West Bank's recovery from the devastation of the intifada, though most of the credit belongs to the international donor community, which pumped billions of dollars into the West Bank and helped generate a wave of construction that gave Ramallah the appearance of a boomtown.

But donor aid began drying up in the last three years and as aid contracted so did economic growth, while unemployment has begun rising from already very high levels. Diminishing aid, together with Israel delaying transfers of tax money due to the PA, saddled it with a budget deficit last year equal to more than 17% of GDP.

Reliant as he was on outside aid and with a slowing economy, Fayyad didn't have many options for closing this gap, apart from raising taxes, delays in paying civil servants' wages and other unpopular measures.

When Fayyad could no longer deliver jobs and a thriving economy, the other things he stood for – transparency, good government and the like – wasn't enough. It says a lot that that the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found in a poll last month that Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh – a man presiding over a besieged and impoverished enclave who has led his realm into two painful wars with Israel – got higher poll ratings (35.6%) among Gazans than Fayyad gets among West Bankers (23.2%).

That same poll found that more Gazans (33.8%) thought conditions in Hamas-controlled Gaza are "good" or "very good" than West Bankers thought they were in the West Bank (26.6%). Conditions, of course, aren't better in Gaza, but Hamas gives Gazans revolutionary ardor in place of material and political progress.

It was the Arab Spring that put an end to Fayyad's dreams. He wasn't drummed out of office by protests or civil war, but the last two years have changed the map of the Middle East to the Palestinians' detriment. Western and Arab donors have more urgent concerns for their time and money than the perpetual Palestinian crisis. In any event, it is hard for anyone (with the possible exception of John Kerry) to believe any longer that the key to making the region a safer and more peaceful place lies in Israel and the Palestinians reaching an accommodation.

More deeply, the debacle that the Arab Spring has become undermined the faith of all but the most naive that Fayyad or anyone else can create a functioning Palestinian state so easily. Between the carnage in Syria, the chaos in Libya and Yemen, and the debasement of democracy on Egypt, the hope that somehow the PA can be different, much less lead the way, looks like a fantasy. In any event, the forces of corruption and revolutionary romanticism in the West Bank appear to be now in the ascent.

The biggest fallout from Fayyad's resignation isn't to the incipient peace process that Kerry is working on so assiduously but the PA's ability to attract donor money. That is why there is talk about replacing Fayyad with another technocrat who can play the Fayyad role of good Palestinian. But it is unlikely they will find someone who elicits more trust than Fayyad himself did.

In other words, the PA is likely to remain on the same trajectory of economic crisis and declining political legitimacy that Fayyad left behind.

Israel could have helped Fayyad, and could still help his successor, by ensuring tax revenues arrive on time and by easing the roadblocks that make commerce in the West Bank a nightmare. But that would be aiding in the creation of a Palestinian state through peaceful economic and political development alongside negotiations. Speeches at Bar-Ilan aside, that is something Benjamin Netanyahu evidently has no intention of allowing to happen.


Daniel Bar-On
Library of Congress/Wikimedia