Don’t Focus On Personalities At The Expense Of Palestinian Politics

One of the key problems of the U.S.’s approach to dealing with the Middle East — particularly with the Palestinians — has been to focus on persons and personalities at the expense of politics and institutions. Rather than cultivating and supporting democratic habits and procedures, successive U.S. administrations and the media alike have tended to focus on individual leaders who could deliver various goods, usually broadly defined “stability” or “progress,” and often ignoring the longer-term implications of how exactly those goods were delivered.

Tom Friedman’s fixation on Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad is a case in point. Like many, Friedman is deeply enthralled by Mr. Fayyad — so much so that he awarded him with his own “-ism”: Fayyadism (defined as “a nonviolent struggle [against the Israeli occupation]… building noncorrupt transparent institutions and effective police and paramilitary units.”) This is understandable. Fayyad has accomplished quite a bit in a few years, first as Palestinian Finance Minister and since 2007 as acting Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, taking the initiative and delivering both vastly improved security and economic growth in the West Bank.

In his column yesterday, Friedman credited Fayyad with “unleash[ing] a real Palestinian ‘revolution’“:

It is a revolution based on building Palestinian capacity and institutions not just resisting Israeli occupation, on the theory that if the Palestinians can build a real economy, a professional security force and an effective, transparent government bureaucracy it will eventually become impossible for Israel to deny the Palestinians a state in the West Bank and Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. […]

The Abbas-Fayyad state-building effort is still fragile, and it rests on a small team of technocrats, Palestinian business elites and a new professional security force. The stronger this team grows, the more it challenges and will be challenged by some of the old-line Fatah Palestinian cadres in the West Bank, not to mention Hamas in Gaza. It is the only hope left, though, for a two-state solution, so it needs to be quietly supported.

During a visit to Israel-Palestine last week organized by Israel Policy Forum, I had an opportunity to meet with Prime Minister Fayyad, and I agree that he’s a very impressive man, with a clear vision of how to achieve the statehood that has eluded the Palestinian people for over sixty years. But while he clearly deserves credit for what he’s done and is doing, it was unclear from speaking to him and other Israelis and Palestinians whether actual political development is tracking with economic and security improvements, and whether Palestinian civil society is being bolstered, or, as has usually been the case in the region, is being left for some undefined “later.”

That would be a huge mistake. As Michele Dunne wrote in a recent report Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Fayyad’s plan for creating the foundations of a Palestinian state “is laudable but has significant limitations”:

That plan, and Palestinian decision making, suffer from a common problem: the suspension of normal political life since the 2007 rift with Hamas and Gaza coup. Without a presidential election, legitimacy is draining away from President Mahmoud Abbas; without a functioning Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and its ability to make laws, institution building is severely limited.

The United States should move beyond the short-term thinking — that inconvenient Palestinian politics can and should be delayed because a negotiating breakthrough is just around the corner — that has afflicted its policies for decades. This does not mean that the United States should engage Hamas directly, which would have the unfortunate effect of validating the group’s violent and rejectionist tactics. Instead, the United States should develop a strategy that patiently supports Palestinian institution building and tolerates the internal Palestinian political competition and bargaining that must accompany it; seeks breakthroughs in negotiations with Israel; and holds the Palestinian Authority to a commitment to prevent violence against Israel.

Without taking anything away from Mr. Fayyad’s accomplishments, his Third Way party won only two seats in the 2006 Palestinian elections, not much of a mandate. While there is progress being made in the West Bank, focusing state-building efforts on a small cadre of elites who say and do what we (the U.S.) want while ignoring the important underlying issue of political legitimacy threatens to keep us on the same treadmill that the U.S. has walked for decades in the Middle East.