I sat down with the Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad at his office in Ramallah for a Palestine Note exclusive interview.
Ramallah – For three years, Salam Fayyad, the Prime Minister in the West Bank Palestinian Authority (PA), has been a focal point for Mideast debate.
As an unelected official, he is reviled by Hamas and democracy activists alike for taking over the PA after the disillusion of the 2007 Palestinian unity government. He is also said to have alienated many within Fatah, the party of President Mahmoud Abbas, who see him as a limit to their influence in the West Bank.
But he has also won praise from other segments of society and adoration among Western commentators for his program of reforming, broadening and rebuilding Palestinian institutions, a process he says is a step toward founding a Palestinian state.
Yet his state-building program, too, has come under scruitiny, prominently with the release of a study in July by Nathan Brown of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which argued that Fayyad’s program is lagging in key areas such as the rule of law, and that his efforts are proceeding in an “authoritarian context.”
Confronted with these and other criticisms, Fayyad has an unflinching, some would say misguided, faith in himself and his program, which he sees as having “transformative” potential.
“This is a state-building track,” he told me in a Palestine Note interview at his Ramallah office.
He added that his efforts are “supposed to ensure readiness for statehood. We think it’s going to take us two years to get there. It’s a bit ambitious, but doable despite the occupation. To end it, to end it means that–that’s the dynamism of this–build, build, build despite the occupation to end it.”
So great is Fayyad’s confidence in the power of his own plans that he believes popular support for them could eventually be the key to reuniting the PA.
“Political parties, Hamas included, will find themselves compelled to go along,” with his state-building vision, coupled with hoped-for progress in peace negotiations, Fayyad said. “Or they resist and they start to pay dearly in political terms, a very, very heavy political price associated with going against that trend.”
Fadi Elsalameen: How do you respond to Nathan Brown’s Carnegie Endowment study that criticizes your program?
Salam Fayyad: It’s a question of building up capacity. It cannot be taken literally or nominally as building institutions that did not exist before. Especially when he says that the issue was maintenance of existing institutions. That’s a badge of honor. Fixing, reforming, maintaining–that’s very much the nature of the task. Reform, upgrading capacity, getting those institutions better able to deliver services, maintaining them. All of these are elements of the state-building effort. To complete the task of getting ready for statehood. So to suggest we are building things from scratch, I never said that. The program doesn’t say that, but when you’re talking about building up capacity to govern ourselves effectively, that could mean introducing new institutions. But it certainly focuses on bringing up capacity of existing institutions.
In terms of infrastructure, there, of course, have been lots of new things. You can’t say, “They’re just maintaining existing infrastructure.” Over the span of two years, we implemented 1,000 community development programs, especially in rural areas, long-marginalized and most devastated by war, settlement activity, and whatnot. It’s going to take us about half the time to implement the next batch of 1,000 projects–we’re almost halfway through. You know, we celebrated project 1,000, I said afterward the next 1,000 projects will take us only one year. Before the year is out, I said, we’re going to have another 1,000 such projects. And we are more than halfway through that mark already today, and I am certain we are going to make it. This will involve water, electricity, new schools, road networks, rural roads, the recreation center that your colleague started in Nablus [Tomorrow’s Youth Organization] for the refugee camp. People have a lot of opportunities now that did not exist before. That really enters under the heading of ‘new.’
And it’s very much related to the need to enhance the capacity of our people to withstand the adversity of occupation. On the way to statehood, on the way to freedom, you don’t do these things–people do not have adequate education and services. They want to leave if they could. Just exactly the opposite of what we need to be doing. With all due respect, it’s very superficial [Nathan Brown’s argument]. I can better understand and better relate to those who assert that this is the other side of Netanyahu’s economic peace coin. At least there is some thinking that went into making that statement that I cannot really dismiss as being superficial. It’s wrong, I disagree with it, but at least there’s a little bit of thought process that I can see leading to that conclusion. But here, to say, “Oh, there are no new institutions,” that’s almost childish. I don’t know who funded this work, and it does not really… [have] any degree of scholarship. It’s just really weak. How can you do that? And on the basis of what? Anecdotal stuff? “I talked to people.” Who are they? I would like to know how many people he talked to. Forget about whom he talked to, but how many people he talked to. Assuming it’s an unbiased sample, how many people did he talk to? How long did he stay here, to form these impressions? And it’s not true that it’s only Ramallah. We started this campaign in Nablus. So, this is way too superficial, if you ask me. Way, way too superficial.
FE: You’ve led a campaign to boycott settlements and settlement products. People are asking, what is the Palestinian government offering to the people? Are they offering employment opportunities, are they helping businesses get alternatives?
SF: We are in many ways, and I can give you an example. If you look at the statistics on unemployment for May, which is the last month for which we have data, for the first time in many, many years, unemployment has inched downward to 14.6%, to below 15%. I’m talking about the West Bank now, [but] it’s down in Gaza as well, compared to before, and there are reasons for this, but I’m talking about the West Bank now. This is a 10% decline [in unemployment] over three years. 10% unemployment decline. And it’s still high! Don’t get me wrong, 14.6% unemployment is nothing to write home about, but it’s substantial improvement over what existed before. And it’s happening in a growing economy. You know, unemployment data, the measure of unemployment officially (by the methods used in the International Labor Organization), you know they ask you, “Fadi, are you employed?” And if you say “yes,” then you’re employed. “Are you unemployed?” You say “yes,” and the next they ask you is, “are you looking for a job?” And if you are not looking for a job, you do not count as unemployed. Now, in a recession, or in a weak economy, there is a phenomenon called “discouraged workers” – those who stop looking for work. So they are counted out of the pool, they’re counted out of those who are actually unemployed. Now what is really interesting is that in a growing economy, those sitting around not looking start to look [for work]. So therefore you have more people who are unemployed who say they are looking, so they begin to be counted as part of unemployment.
So I think, with a little bit of patience, if we really manage to keep this on track, you’re going to see further improvement. That’s one observation. The second, what I think is the most interesting observation and the most relevant, is that here we are. We are disengaging structurally in the sense of dependency on employment opportunities in Israel. We’re reducing our unemployment–unemployment is coming down–in the context of disengagement in terms of labor dependency. So it looks like the theory is working.
FE: What about tax collection? Is that increasing?
SF: Definitely. For the first time, you know, this year we’re projecting over 20% increase in overall tax take to take us over the $2 billion dollar mark for the first time in the history of the PA.
FE: How does this affect the budget?
SF: Well first of all, it reduces dependency on aid, for sure. This too is a very good story. In 2008, the external financing requirement–for budget support only, without development expenditure–amounted to $1.8 billion. This year, it’s $1.2 billion. In 2011, we’re reducing it to below a billion. So we’re working very hard on attaining financial viability, you know what I’m saying. Reducing dependency on aid–the vision we have for the state is not one of perpetual dependence on aid. One thing that I personally tend to be credited for is the fact that we get aid. I say I measure success not by how much aid we get but by how much less of it we need. And so therefore, reducing reliance on aid is something that is definitely on top of our agenda. And we’re doing it.
FE: What will happen at the end, by 2011, the date that you have set to be prepared for the creation of a Palestinian state?
SF: I view this as a dynamic process. People who look at with this with suspicion, doubt, I break into two categories. One that says, “How can this be done? It’s impossible.” Of course there’s a third category, worst of all who say, “this is a conspiracy”–we’ll skip them. And there are fewer of these people. There’s definitely growing support amongst the public. There are some who say, “How can we possibly do that?” The people who say I think that’s partly because they do not see the process of doing this as capable of influencing political outcomes, which is completely contrary to a guiding principal underlying this work. I mean basically we have an objective, we know what the endgame should be, so that’s what we will be seeking. On the way to getting there, the idea is to exploit the momentum generated by creating positive facts on the ground. To order what otherwise would be a complete static vision. This is not static, this is dynamic. The [state-building] process itself is intended to generate pressure on the political process to produce, you know what I’m saying? So therefore the idea, the idea here is amass enough facts on the ground, enough critical mass of positive change to where the reality of the state will impose itself on the world. This is different from saying “unilateral declaration of statehood.”
When I announced this program in August of last year, this is exactly what I said. And that’s why everyone said, “Ah, watch out, this is dangerous.” What I said, and I still say it today, the idea is what we hope and expect. This is a state-building track. It’s supposed to ensure readiness for statehood. We think it’s going to take us two years to get there. It’s a bit ambitious, but doable despite the occupation. To end it, to end it means that–that’s the dynamism of this–build, build, build despite the occupation to end it.
We estimate that it will take two years to finish this. It is our hope and expectation that by then the political process will have produced an end to the Israeli occupation. That’s our hope and expectation. If it hasn’t, then the reality of the state would be so obvious, so strong, so compelling as to exert so much pressure on that political process to produce.
On the way to getting there, with all the lift of the spirit of the people that it brings, Palestinians but internationals as well: With more and more people investing in this possibility–I don’t just mean economically, materially but also psychologically, morally, politically–that cannot but influence the political process. It’s a not a coincidence that the Europeans came out with a landmark statement out of the European Council last year. It was against the backdrop of, “Guess what, the Palestinians are getting ready.” That’s an example. I know that’s what happened. All of the sudden everyone is talking about a two year timeline. The Quartet on March 19 of this year said two years. Well, their two years is longer than ours – we started a bit earlier.
We are already seeing some benefits because we are in a hurry to do this. When was it actually an issue for the world, the so-called ‘Area C?’ Now everybody’s talking about ‘Area C!’ Finally, well last but not least, another key contribution this has made is the following: when, and I think this is really major in terms of the political process, the end of the interim period was crossed in May 1999, it seemed as if we had ushered into an endless open transitional period. Nothing, no timeline. [In 2009] we came and said, we’re going to be ready for statehood in two years. And all of a sudden, the notion of this [transitional period] having to come to end started to resurface again. Not only, although that is not small, in terms of the window closing fast on the two-state solution, which is often said because of the settlements, but also because of this notion that, “Well, it’s what we have said about Palestinians all along, they’ll never build a state, they’re terrorists, they’re corrupt,” all this since, they’re not going to be there. This is something I often express, the other thing that I positively believe, that some adjustment will have to occur before a settlement is possible. Because well, Israeli politics how they are today, if you really look at it, it’s most unlikely that it will be able to produce something that will measure up to being a settlement from our point of view.
So therefore, you really would want to, again, deploy that process in a way that, as a matter of fact–let me back up a little bit. You asked me, for the two-state solution: the majority says “yes.” But you ask the same majority a different question: How many of you really believe that the state of Palestine will emerge along side the state of Israel? The percentage will drop substantially. What this means is that people have become desensitized to slogans of two states, of the Palestinian state. We have [said], in every speech we have, “The state of Palestine with Jerusalem as its capital,” but how many people really believe it? People when I go and talk to them, I keep saying, “This state won’t happen if you believe it won’t happen.” And I believe it will happen.
You know what is really happening here, is that–the same situation on both sides, the Palestinians and the Israelis–getting that majority to really believe it can happen is the challenge that has for long been underestimated. I think we really need to do that, and I keep saying, you know this state of Palestine is not going to happen to Israel or to Israelis or for the Palestinians, it’s going to grow on them. First, we have an overarching vision for the state, based on the foundation, principles that are consistent with universally accepted values. Then you continue, you persevere in a manner fully consistent with those principles. The reality of it begins to force itself on you. So that’s the process what I call transformation and transition of Palestinian statehood from a concept to the realm of possibility and then to the realm of reality. That’s the power of it. It’s the power of ideas. Ideas are important! Ideas are very important.
FE: But the political track is a different story. A friend, Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation, asked me to ask you this question. The Obama administration believes they can pursue a peace track while excluding Hamas, and in order to build a Palestinian state, you either have to build in Hamas or you have to crush them completely, and he’s not sure how you reconcile the two.
SF: You know, I look at this issue in a way that’s conceptually not different from the whole political process and the state-building track, in a dynamic setting. If you really put it this way, you have a Hamas that does not accept the platform of the PLO. You have certain requirements for engagement internationally, and as a matter dictated by agreements entered into by the PLO and commitments they made. So you look at this as a given, and you say “impossible, there is no way.” So you come to the conclusion of these “golden solutions” I call them: exclude or include right now in order to produce a solution. This is the product of static thinking. It’s not dynamic. There are many scenarios that are possible on this, and maybe a combination of those scenarios is what could bring this impasse to an end.
One for example is, here we have a political process that is going on, maybe a feeble one, but it doesn’t really matter, but if all of a sudden there is a breakthrough of sorts that could suggest to people, “well, this actually may happen.” That would have a major impact on the situation. The day after is not going to be like the day before. It’s watershed. That in itself produces a political revolution. Where the differences on the Palestinian scene begin to be perceived as very sharp and too difficult to overcome is a circumstance where people lose hope, lose faith in the political process and its possibility. But if you deal with that scenario, that changes the dynamic enormously. It probably would make it a little bit more appealing to Hamas to join the consensus, or to find ways to make it possible for them to get into this, as opposed to any other way. That’s one scenario.
Another scenario is that through the work we do and the fact that we’re not engaging in “they say, we say” debate, split in television debate, but rather “they say, we do, and these are the results”, and it could be, as it has been I believe, because the positive reaction that I detect exists on the part of people, ordinary citizens, toward this program and toward this vision, not only in the West Bank and Gaza as well.
So, people begin to see, that also influences the way people look at issues. Political parties, no matter what ideology they have, they cannot be indifferent to the way people feel. What we have is a situation characterized in the main by this divide politically. I think one way of dealing with it is to set in motion initiatives, activities and all of that that are seen as serving the interests and the over all good of the Palestinian people. Political parties, Hamas included, will find themselves compelled to either go along, and that reduces the differences or the extent to which they separate, or resist and they start to pay dearly in political terms, a very very heavy political price associated with going against that trend.
The answer to this is that the political process should produce. The effort to get ready for statehood should proceed. The worst thing we can do is sit on our hands and wait for something to happen. That perfect alignment of starts is never going to happen. Instead, it’s better to work and hope that something happens. I say that we Palestinians are due for a lucky bounce [laughs]. Overdue, as a matter of fact.
What this does is ensures that when that happens we are on the playing field, and not outside the arena altogether. It’s not going to settle anything, and it’s not guaranteed to produce anything, but it certainly positions us much better to take advantage of opportunities as they emerge. So that’s really my attitude. I’m not sure one can or should look at this as an either or, this or that. If it is that, I have to wait until we bridge all of our differences. I have my own views on that. I think it’s important from a point of view of sustainability, in order to get where we’re going, and sustaining it. Security. What kind of security doctrine.
I am a firm believer in nonviolence as a path to freedom, combined with this positive agenda, creative positive facts on the ground. Yes, every day something bad happens that discourages. Yes the Israelis demolished barracks a couple of days ago, but for the first time in history, there is an Authority that is there the next day building again with people. That lifts the spirit. All of a sudden you defeat the defeatism. You cease being either completely submissive or completely belligerent. This has tremendous power. It’s transformative. I believe in it.
FE: President Obama promised 400 million dollars to the Palestinians in June. Some of that money was supposed to go to Gaza. My question is twofold? Where did it go if it was supposed to go to Gaza? Second, he called on Israelis and Palestinians to increase their security cooperation. You recently met with Israeli Defense Minister [Ehud] Barak. Can you give some idea about this?
SF: Yes they do have money for projects in Gaza and today I had discussions with an American official on that, and we’re working very closely on that, to integrate the various initiatives intended for Gaza under the overall national plan. And that also helps bring about a greater sense of oneness even though the separation has become more deeply entrenched. I recognize this as a reality. And it’s not coincidental that I keep saying, each day, getting ready includes, importantly, reuniting the country. There’s not going to be a state of Palestine unless our country is reunited. And I believe that. It’s important. In fact this week when [EU foreign affairs chief] Catherine Ashton was here a few days ago. She announced a program that’s being implemented by us with European money to help the private sector. We’re getting there, and we’re certainly working and planning to work similarly with the Americans in building things and helping to restore a bit of normalcy, on the road to restoring economic life in Gaza and ending the hardship of people there. It’s very, very important . We attach great importance to that. I spend a great deal of my time these days on this issue, trying to really push the agenda, trying to deal with the problems there.
The other issue related to security. That meeting [with Barak] really focused on, among other things, Gaza, and the need for there to be a change of paradigm completely and to get rid of this approach that was restrictive and based on ‘everything is disallowed unless otherwise indicated’ to the opposite of that and to actually implement it this way. So there was a lot of discussion on that.
There was also a lot of discussion on getting political deliverables associated with the improved security situation, in the main getting Israel to stop its incursions into our areas, and getting us to have a uniformed permanent security presence in Palestinian centers outside of Area A. This is very important – I said political deliverables. Why? Because the whole thing is pivoted on the notion that all Palestinians want a state of Palestine and that’s how we internalize the security doctrine because we made it so organically tied to the objective of statehood. You want statehood? Then security has to be done this way. If still people see the Israeli army come into Nablus, Ramallah, people start to wonder. Conversely, if tomorrow Israel says, as I believe it should, as I believe it should have, “We are no longer sending troops into Palestinian territories,” this is huge There’s nothing that defines a state, or a state in the making, more than where its security services are, not where the security services of the occupation are. So it’s very important for that to begin to happen. Also for us to begin to have security presence in our own areas, where Palestinians live, to really have a little bit of a security presence. I travel around the country. If I happen to be traveling in rural areas, which is oftentimes, I see security there, our security, they are allowed to go there with coordination by the Israelis. I leave, they leave. So I think to myself, if this is a place I am visiting for the first time, it will be the first time our citizens there will have seen Palestinian security. Imagine what it will do to people if they wake up every day to the reality of a police station in their neighborhood. You know, statehood begins to make sense. The whole project begins to make sense. What we do every day improving quality of life, building institutions, building our capacity to govern ourselves and all of that begins to make sense as part of an effort aimed at getting us to freedom. You see what I’m saying? Absent that this beings to apply an exercise in adapting to the reality of permanent occupation. Then this could really be seen, in a way that cannot be challenged, as a sort of implementation of the ‘economic peace’ vision. Which it isn’t. That’s not what is intended.That is why Israel is definitely required to it. That’s what we’re talking about.
FE: Did Barak promise anything? Was this mainly the beginning of a discussion?
SF: No, it was not the beginning of a discussion. We have have raised these issues many times. I have many times. Many many times. Unfortunately they did not receive the attention they deserved early on. Now they are, so good. Fine. But can we really produce something after this? I don’t want to stay in the realm of you know, “we ask, they think about it, we ask, they think about it, we ask, they agree in principle.” What we really would want to see is something concrete happening. It’s very very important. That is what is required.