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A Palestinian Technocrat Rises Steadily, but Questions Persist

By: Howard Schneider, Washington Post


Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is not a fighter by trade, but when control of the Gaza Strip fell to the Islamist Hamas movement two years ago, he sensed the need to learn fast. 

A former International Monetary Fund economist who was then the Palestinian Authority's finance minister, he was promoted to head the government at a time when he and others feared the West Bank was close to collapse as well -- from a Hamas attack or a civil war.

"We were in a state of shock. Gaza had just gone down the tubes, and the West Bank was not that far behind," Fayyad said in a recent interview. "Everything that I now know about the situation suggests strongly that was exactly what was going to happen. The PA had absolutely no wherewithal to stand a challenge."

The decisions that grew out of those first tense days have put Fayyad at the center of U.S. and Israeli hopes that an emerging calm in the West Bank will endure, and of a debate that has riven Palestinian politics. His steadily increasing influence over Palestinian affairs also has raised a question central to the Obama administration's peace efforts: Can a political independent, who speaks openly of the need to protect Israelis from attacks, succeed in a rough and faction-driven Middle East?

More familiar with economic models than with military doctrine -- "I have no security background," he says -- Fayyad, 57, is trying to untangle the complications originating from the intifada that broke out in 2000. The uprising, which followed several years of halting Israeli-Palestinian cooperation under the Oslo peace accords in the 1990s, involved deadly suicide and other attacks against Israelis, a deepened Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and a reversal of steady economic growth in the territory.

In talks with Palestinian police and security forces in the days after Gaza's fall in 2007, Fayyad said, it was made clear that they would have to begin deploying in force, reorganize their command and work to establish security in the broadest sense -- from routine law enforcement in Palestinian cities to prevention of attacks against Israelis. That, he insisted at the time and in public comments since, was the only way to "safeguard our national effort."

"Anyone who violates this is an outlaw, regardless of their background," Fayyad said. "This is about building a state, and the state should have sole purview over arms and weapons. There is no statehood and armed militias at the same time. It is a contradiction."

That policy has earned enough Israeli trust to allow the gradual renewal of security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority even as Hamas retains control of Gaza, with an armed wing that has fired thousands of rockets into Israeli territory in recent years and fought a punishing three-week war with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in December and January. There is a lull in the violence, but Hamas makes no pretense: It wants Fayyad out of power, and it wants an end to the security arrangements evolving in the West Bank between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, which are backed by the United States and the European Union.

While Gaza remains under a strict embargo, with only basic necessities allowed in by Israel, Palestinian security forces in the West Bank have been provided new barracks courtesy of the United States, automatic weapons and ammunition and are due to receive 50 armored personnel carriers donated by the Russian government.

The improving security situation has prompted the Israeli government to lift West Bank checkpoints put in place during the intifada -- a key Palestinian demand and a measure that international groups have encouraged to bolster Palestinian moderates and improve the economy. Top IDF commanders said they are sensing a change in attitudes in the West Bank as well.

"The terrorists are not the heroes of the street anymore," said one top Israeli military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "They still don't love us, but there's a change."

Fayyad's security efforts have become a central issue in the lengthy and unsuccessful reconciliation talks between Hamas and the rival Fatah faction. Fatah is the party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who appointed Fayyad to his job.

To Hamas leaders, Fayyad's policy of working with Israel to develop Palestinian security forces amounts to shutting down the option of opposing Israel with arms before the political benefits of doing so are certain. Hamas does not consider the newly trained troops to be the gendarmes of a nascent state but "Dayton's forces" -- a reference to Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, who oversees U.S. support for the program. Fayyad, meanwhile, is "Clinton's boy," a reference to the support he has received from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for his reform of Palestinian Authority financial systems and his oversight of the international aid that is keeping the body solvent.

"The biggest beneficiary of [Fayyad's] years is Israel," said Omar Abdel Razek, a Hamas lawmaker. Hamas's victory in 2006 Palestinian legislative elections led to an Israeli and U.S. boycott, and the eventual schism with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. Like many Hamas officials in the West Bank, Razek was jailed; he was only recently released from a three-year sentence.

"There is no way we can participate in a government that does what it does now," Razek said, criticizing not just Fayyad's policies but also his pedigree. In a society that sometimes measures credibility by the length of a politician's time in prison or exile, Fayyad brings a technocrat's résumé -- a doctorate from the University of Texas and years with the IMF and World Bank.

Many Palestinian, Israeli and U.S. analysts consider Fayyad's lack of a popular political base a weak point. His thin political credentials would be sorely tested if reconciliation talks proceed, Palestinian elections are held as scheduled in January, and he is called on to win a mandate for his policies.

The Nablus-born Fayyad returned to the West Bank in 1996 as the IMF's representative. He worked briefly as regional representative of the Arab Bank before being appointed finance minister in a "reform cabinet" assembled by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 2002. Fayyad helped start an independent party, the Third Way, and won election to the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006.

Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian pollster and analyst, said Fayyad tends to fare poorly in popularity compared with Abbas or with more charismatic figures such as jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti and Hamas official Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Islamist movement's de facto government in Gaza.

"Fayyad is not perceived as a politician. He is still perceived as a technocrat, and his rating as a technocrat is improving," Khatib said. Although strains have been reported in the relationship between Fayyad and Abbas, "they need each other, and they know it," Khatib said, with Abbas providing the political standing and Fayyad the management expertise.

Fayyad has plenty of critics, including Fatah traditionalists who want one of their own in power and human rights activists who say the Palestinian forces are too aggressive. Others argue that Fayyad has assumed too much individual authority for a man whose stated goal is to build institutions.

Israeli politicians and analysts allied with the Israeli government are skeptical as well. They say Fayyad is well-intentioned and competent, but they are not convinced that anything he has done will last.

Analysts Dan Diker and Pinhas Inbari argued in a recent paper written for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a think tank considered close to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, that the United States was "naive" to think its support for Fayyad would help him succeed without more local backing.

That, Fayyad said, is something Israel could help with. He argues that his security efforts will obligate Israel, under international agreements such as a 2003 "road map" for peace, to take steps of its own -- including freezing Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank and stopping military incursions into areas put under Palestinian control according to the Oslo accords.

If those things do not happen, he said, he is sure to fail.

"I worry that Palestinian people will begin to lose faith and whatever remains of the credibility of this political process will disappear," he said. "This whole thing will risk being seen politically as an exercise in making the occupation work better. This is about ending the occupation."