The Middle East Channel

A little rain on the Palestinian parade

Since June 2007 -- and the split of the Palestinian Authority in two halves, one running Gaza and one running the West Bank - U.S. policy has banked heavily on an attempt to back the West Bank half, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. When the Obama administration took office in January 2009, it doubled down on the U.S. bet on Abbas and Fayyad. Fayyad has responded with an ambitious program that is designed to provide the institutional basis for a Palestinian state. His unassuming style, honest and capable administration, and sometimes soothing words have led to a host of international paeans to "Fayyadism." Salam Fayyad is held to be quietly building a Palestinian state rather than waiting for international actors to deliver one.

There is no doubt that Fayyad as an individual has some real virtues: a measure of personal integrity, an ability to convey an attitude that politics is about public service rather than personal aggrandizement, and a shift from revolutionary rhetoric to practical action. But is Fayyadism building a Palestinian state?

No.

And in a recent trip to the West Bank, I could not find a Palestinian who thinks he is. I report more fully on my findings in a commentary for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that was released today. 

There are those who admire and participate in Fayyad's efforts to be sure. And there is much to admire in Fayyad. But even those participating in his project would be the first to admit -- along with Fayyad himself -- that the effort cannot be sustained unless it is supported by a diplomatic process that also points to Palestinian statehood. And nobody believes there is such a viable process right now. The only question that most serious observers debate is whether hope for a two state solution is dead, dying, or merely in hibernation.

But there are three other problems with pinning our hopes on Fayyadism as the basis of a two-state solution.

First, it is simply not true that his cabinet is building institutions on the West Bank. Instead, it is improving the functioning of some existing institutions in some areas -- and failing in others. I have been trying to follow the institutional development of the Palestinian Authority since it was founded; on my trip to the West Bank to update my research, I found that for every one step forward taken under difficult circumstances, politics in the West Bank has taken two steps taken back. I paid particular attention to two sectors I have focused on over the years: law and education. The legal system is operating more smoothly in some areas (courts are more efficient and are handling non-political cases better), but it is also politicized, bypassed by the security services, and hamstrung by internal rivalries. The education system is merely holding together (which is credit to Fayyad's cabinet), but it is hardly improving.

The fact is that the institutions Fayyad's cabinet is operating were built in previous periods. There was actually far more building of institutions under Yasser Arafat than there has been under Fayyad. It is true that many institutions were built in spite of Arafat and that Fayyad's behavior suggests a greater respect for rules and institutions. But that is consolation only for those who mistake personalities for politics. For all his admirable qualities, what Fayyad has managed to do is to maintain many of the institutions built earlier and make a few of them more efficient. 

The second problem is that these efforts take place in an authoritarian context that robs it of domestic legitimacy. Palestinian democracy has died, and Fayyad could not operate the way he does (and would probably not be prime minister at all) if it were still alive. The president's term has expired, the parliament's term is also expired, no new elections are in sight, elected local officials have been selectively dismissed, and local elections have been cancelled. Opposition supporters have been ousted from the civil service and municipal government and their organizations have been shuttered. Activists are detained without charges; court orders have been ignored; and the broader citizenry is increasingly administered according to laws that are drafted by bureaucrats out of public view. This is not the "rule of law" if the phrase is to have any meaning.

Fayyad's measures look like stop gap damage control rather than "state building" when they are contrasted with what came before. The greatest strides in reviewing, modifying, modernizing, and unifying Palestine's legal framework were taken when there was a viable parliament (between 1996 and 2006). The process was messy, contentious, and uncertain. But it also resulted in laws that were far more solidly based, liberal in spirit, and regarded as legitimate. Since Hamas' January 2006 electoral triumph, and the Israeli arrest of several Hamas deputies later that year (paralyzing the parliament), that legislative process has come to an end.  Now the cabinet makes law by having bureaucrats draft law out of public view in an ad hoc procedure -- one that is constitutionally a bit dubious if politically inevitable.

The third problem with relying on Fayyadism is that political paralysis and authoritarianism is infecting other Palestinian institutions, even those outside of the governmental structure. Structures that were launched or knit together over the past two decades (professional associations, NGOs, political parties) are hardly being built or improved; they are decaying. Some are being actively squeezed and even suppressed, such as Islamist NGOs in the West Bank or non-Islamist ones in Gaza. A recent report of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights found "stark violations" of the law by both halves of the PA and observed more dryly that "it is possible to conclude that despite the presence of a modern legal framework governing the registration and operation of associations, the current political and security considerations prevail over the system of rights and public freedoms." 

But it is not only civil society that is feeling the pinch. Palestine's political parties are also in a state of crisis. Hamas is certainly in the healthiest state, but only in Gaza (in the West Bank the organization is still in hibernation, with only a few leading members active in public view). And even in Gaza, where its dominance is so well established, the movement is still sorting out the effects of being melded with a governing political structure it had long held in disdain. The smaller factions (such as the PFLP and the People's Party) remain small, and the newer initiatives (most notably the Palestinian National Initiative) are not gaining much traction.

But Fatah is undoubtedly in the greatest disarray. The much-celebrated (and long delayed) party congress held last summer did little to revive the organization or calm its bitter internal rivalries. It is not clear if Fatah really remains a political party in any meaningful sense; instead it consists of an aging old guard monopolizing top positions, a middle generation that stands in the wings (and is no more unified than the old guard), and a host of local branches whose links to the center are tenuous. The recent debacle of local elections -- in which Fatah leaders forced Fayyad's cabinet to cancel them just as candidate registration was closing because of the movement's inability to assemble electoral lists -- shows the extent of the disarray. Fatah could have waltzed to an overwhelming victory with Hamas boycotting and a host of smaller parties and independents either cooperating with Fatah or putting forward meager challenges. One of the most knowledgeable observers of Palestinian elections told me: "Now we know that Fatah is incapable running against itself, let alone against Hamas."

Fayyad is not building a state, he's holding down the fort until the next crisis. And when that crisis comes, Fayyad's cabinet has no democratic legitimacy or even an organized constituency to fall back on. What he does have -- contrary to those who laud him for not relying on outsiders -- is an irreplaceable reservoir of international respectability. The message of "Fayyadism" is clear, and it is personal: if Salam Fayyad is prime minister, wealthy international donors will keep the PA solvent, pay salaries to its employees, fund its infrastructural development, and even put gentle pressure on Israel to ease up its tight restrictions on movement and access. 

Fayyad may be a good person, but finding a good person is not a policy. If he is making mild administrative and fiscal improvements in some areas, this cannot obscure the deeper problem that most Palestinian political institutions are actually in deep trouble and the most important ones are in a state of advanced decay. 

Nathan Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, a fellow at the Woodrow Willson International Center for Scholars, and a 2009 Carnegie Scholar for the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

AFP/Getty Images

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