Salam Fayad: Everyone's Favorite Palestinian

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

The old-new Palestinian finance minister, Salam Fayyad, took advantage of last weekend, before the new Palestinian unity government was sworn in, to say "farewell" to his Israeli colleagues. In effect, already at the end of February, when Fayyad held talks with senior Israeli officials at the Finance and Foreign Ministries, he was aware that by joining a government which includes Hamas, he - the Palestinian politician most esteemed in the West - would be added to the growing list of Palestinians Israel is boycotting. "I very much enjoyed working with you," Fayyad told one senior Israeli official during that weekend. "It is a shame that we will not be able to continue talking. I can only hope that this will change in the future."

Fayyad was not the only one who regretted the end of contacts. Many Israelis, both senior and less so, were sorry to see him leave. Everyone who met him in the past few years was enchanted by him. In Jerusalem, Washington, Paris, London and many other capitals, Fayyad became the ultimate Palestinian "icon," the ideal partner. Tzipi Livni, Ephraim Sneh and other Israeli politicians enjoyed sitting and talking with him in the captivating garden of the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, or on the terrace of the King David Hotel, in the city's west. Fayyad is the only Palestinian in whose hands they were prepared to place hundreds of millions of dollars in the belief that these monies would indeed be used to pay salaries.

Fayyad's close relationship with the Israeli establishment can be gauged from the following story. About two years ago, the daughter of Dov Weisglass, who was then the head of the Prime Minister's Bureau, got married. Fayyad was also invited and until today he enjoys a warm relationship with Weisglass. When the seating arrangement was set, Fayyad was placed next to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon. The two had a long conversation between the end of the "chuppah" and the start of the refreshments.

But the best evidence of his status in Israel was the invitation he received to deliver an address at the Herzliya Conference last January. Fayyad was thus granted entry to the meeting place of Israel's economic and political elite via the front door. "I know that it was at this conference that they announced the disengagement plan, a move which perhaps had the greatest influence on the Palestinians' lives in the past few years," he said in his opening remarks. "I was invited to speak about economics but I actually prefer to speak to you about politics." During the next half hour, Fayyad outlined his political philosophy. The audience, which was composed of senior figures in the economy, listened to him attentively.

Without electoral power

A senior foreign diplomat who met Fayyad during the past few days reported that he found him full of energy, attentive and excited about returning to the finance minister's office from which he was exiled in the past year because of the establishment of the Hamas government. "He is aware of how great a challenge he has to face and to what extent his prestige is at stake, but that merely makes him even more excited about the job," the diplomat said.

Fayyad does not yet have a clear plan of work - he merely knows that he will have to convince the international community to overcome its remaining doubts with regard to relations with the Palestinian Authority (PA). Fayyad told a foreign diplomat that he would "not allow the Israeli boycott to prevent him from working seriously" and that he "intends to ensure that all the money will go into one cash register which is under his control, so that not even one dollar will go to dubious ends."

Fayyad is a strange bird in Palestinian politics. On the one hand, he is the Palestinian politician most esteemed by Israel and the West. However, on the other hand, he has no electoral power whatsoever in Gaza or the West Bank. Before last year's parliamentary elections he was courted by Fatah, which promised him that if he joined the party's slate he would become prime minister. But Fayyad read the political map astutely and realized that Fatah did not have a good chance at winning. Instead, he set up the Third Way Party with Hanan Ashrawi and Yasser Abed Rabbo. They won only two seats but Fayyad remained an extremely influential figure in the PA's political arena.

Fayyad was born in the village of Dir al-Rasoun near Tul Karm. Unlike other senior Palestinian figures, he did not personally experience the "Nakba" (Catastrophe) of 1948. He completed a doctorate in economics at the University of Texas and in 1987 started to work at the World Bank in Washington. After the establishment of the PA, he returned to the territories as a representative of the International Monetary Fund. In 2001, he started working in the private sector and was appointed the West Bank's manager of the Arab Bank, the largest bank in the Middle East.

He was on his way to a brilliant business career when the person considered to be his greatest patron intervened - then national security adviser and today U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. When the Israel Defense Forces' Operation Defensive Shield was over, pressure mounted on Yasser Arafat to implement reforms. As a result, the new job of PA finance minister was set up, a post that was intended to take control of economic affairs away from the rais (Arafat) and put them in professional hands. Back then Fayyad's name was mentioned as the leading candidate and because of pressure from Rice and others, he was persuaded to take the job.

Following his appointment, Fayyad introduced numerous reforms in the PA's financial system, despite vociferous arguments with Arafat, which strengthened his image as a strong and independent person. His ties with President George W. Bush, on the other hand, flourished. Whenever they met, the two made sure that they would have at least a quarter of an hour to reminisce about their days at the University of Texas and to get up to date about the latest developments in the American Football League.

Fayyad also left Likud MK Silvan Shalom with a relatively positive impression. "We found him easy to deal with and Ariel Sharon believed that if money is being transferred to the Palestinians then at least it should go directly to him," he says. Nevertheless, a political figure who was in contact with Fayyad at that time says the latter had to give in to Arafat from time to time. "He said that was his way to survive. That a little corruption was better than a lot of corruption."

He didn't keep his word

Israeli diplomats say that since it became clear that Fayyad will return to the finance portfolio, their European counterparts have been beside themselves. "They are all just waiting for the moment when they can meet him," one senior foreign ministry official said. "All we hear from them is 'Fayyad, Fayyad, Fayyad.'" Israel's former ambassador to Washington, Danny Ayalon, who spent quite a bit of time with Fayyad, tries to explain the phenomenon: "He is the Palestinian figure with the most prestige in the West; they consider him to be someone who can speak their language. The unlimited credit he has earned from the Americans is what gives him his power."

The fact that official Israel is currently boycotting Fayyad does not affect the esteem in which he is held. Why do Israelis feel so comfortable with him? Senior political officials, Knesset members and cabinet ministers who have met him, explain that Fayyad simply does not resemble any other Palestinian political figure. "He is the classic example of a Palestinian who has spent a great deal of time in the West and has acquired Western behavior and values," a senior Israeli official says. "He is a very straight person. His directness is surprising. There are no games or pretenses with him. Quite a few Palestinians immediately begin with a speech about the occupation just so they can feel good about themselves. With him, it's not like that. Obviously he is not satisfied with the occupation but one doesn't hear the standard slogans from him. You sit down and talk with him to the point."

Another Israeli diplomat adds: "He doesn't have a crazy sense of humor and he isn't 'one of the guys' like Saeb Erekat, for example. You know that his word is a word."

Another characteristic that Israelis who worked with Fayyad mention is his modesty. "With every senior Palestinian official you always look at what kind of car he is traveling in and where his bodyguard is, but with him there simply aren't things like that," a member of the Knesset said. "After all, he gave up a much more exciting career in the West, one that was far more lucrative and comfortable. To him, this is a mission."

Despite the compliments Fayyad receives in the political arena, recently the Prime Minister's Bureau has pointed an accusatory finger at him. Officials of this office say that several million dollars from the Palestinian tax money, which Israel unfroze and passed on to him, have gone to pay the salaries of the Palestinian security forces, contrary to earlier agreements. Although Fayyad denied this, officials in Israel were furious. "On the face of it, it seems that he simply did not keep his word," said one Israeli official who immediately qualified this statement: "But on the other hand, it is difficult to believe that he betrayed us. It is not in keeping with his character. Perhaps someone did that behind his back."

Be that as it may, no one in Israel intends to distinguish between Fayyad and Hamas cabinet ministers. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni have made it abundantly clear that whoever sits down with Hamas will be boycotted. The fact that people in Europe and the U.S. think differently is not likely to change their mind in the immediate future. "To boycott Fayyad is the height of stupidity and absurdity," says Yossi Beilin, the chairman of the Meretz party who is one of Fayyad's acquaintances. "He is a unique personality in the PA. It is as difficult for him to sit in the same government as Hamas as it was for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea, but he knows that the alternative is much worse."

Nevertheless, it is possible that Israel will climb down from its high horse in the not too distant future. "If he calls Tzipi Livni tomorrow, she will not pick up the telephone," stresses a senior Foreign Ministry official. "But speak to me again in another month from now. By then the answer may be different."



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