It was quite astonishing to hear world leaders so gushing in their praise for Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. The western-trained former World Bank official was variously described as "professional", "transparent" and "effective". US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton managed to combine all these comments in her concluding press conference at the Sharm al-Sheikh donors' conference, which raised more money than anticipated. "The presentation from Prime Minister Fayyad was as good as I've seen from anybody. I mean, that's a presentation that should make every person proud, because it was so professional, so well thought out and it inspired confidence."
Comments in closed meetings elicited similar praise for a man who has been running a caretaker government since President Mahmoud Abbas fired Ismail Haniyeh's Reform and Change-led unity government after militants aligned with the Islamic Hamas movement drove Abbas' people out of Gaza in June 2007.
Fayyad, whose Third Way party garnered a mere two seats in parliamentary elections in 2006, was previously better known for his role as the finance minister who cleaned out the Palestinian Authority when Yasser Arafat was president and in respective governments since. He introduced the concept of making the Palestinian budget publicly and easily accessible and paid salaries to security officials and civil servants by direct deposit, against the wishes of military leaders who wanted control over paying their cadres themselves.
But Fayyad's success went further than such donor-praised transparent financing. He is credited with bringing a measure of security and rule of law to the West Bank. Working closely with US security envoy General Keith Dayton, Fayyad oversaw the training and rehabilitation of the Palestinian security forces that led to Palestinian police regaining control over Jenin and much of Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem and recently Hebron. Reform of the judicial system has also been undertaken, giving Palestinians in the West Bank a partially stable legal environment of sorts.
Fayyad has also been credited with introducing a disciplined and efficient system of government. Ministers are expected to lay out their plans and provide regular evaluations of how they are doing vis-a-vis the goals they have set themselves.
The Fayyad government, however, has not had much political clout, other than that given to it by the decrees signed by President Abbas. The Palestinian Legislative Council never gave it a vote of confidence, and the major political parties, whether PLO factions or Islamists, are completely absent from his technocratic cabinet.
Abbas' Fateh faction is totally absent from the Fayyad administration and Hamas has regularly accused Fayyad of collaborating with General Dayton against their members, with many Islamic charities affiliated to Hamas in the West Bank having been closed down.
During his premiership, more than half the Palestinian budget was spent paying Gaza's civil servants, many of whom were asked to stay at home after having been sidelined by the deposed Haniyeh government. Yet despite these payments, Hamas has not been supportive of Fayyad whom it considers an illegitimate prime minister. Fayyad's status deteriorated even further in the eyes of the Islamists when it was leaked that US and other western officials wanted him to serve as the prime minister of any new national unity government.
Unity talks being held in Cairo have given much more clout not only to the Islamists but to the Fateh leaders who have been sidelined from power and cabinet positions ever since the appointment of the technocratic emergency government.
The resignation of Fayyad came in this context. On the one hand, there is strong public, regional and international support for Palestinians to be united. But on the other hand, there is strange unanimity in opposing Fayyad between Hamas and Fateh (with the exception of Abbas). In this context, Fayyad had little choice but to submit his resignation to the president so as to, in his words, "make way for the new government". To make sure that people took him seriously, Fayyad said that he would stay in his position until no later than the end of March.
The resignation of a caretaker government has little meaning. In this regard, Abbas ignored the end of March deadline and asked Fayyad to stay on until a new government was established. The resignation, however, has caused much speculation among Palestinians. Some believe that it represents exactly what Fayyad stated, i.e., an attempt to remove any potential obstacle to the success of unity talks. Others were more skeptical, saying he handed in the resignation so that Abbas could ask him to stay and thereby enhance his position. Others went even further, saying that the true goal of Fayyad is to become president of the Palestinian Authority.
Whatever the real motivation, few will disagree that Salam Fayyad has run a radically improved kind of government, one in which the public good has taken precedent over other issues. The current reconciliation talks in Cairo are very likely to give precedent to political and partisan consideration for any upcoming government. Nevertheless, many Palestinians are hoping that the professional, public-first spirit, if not the person of Fayyad, will continue to take priority in any future government.
Originally published 16/3/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian columnist, is the director general of Community Media Network, a media NGO that is registered in Jordan and Palestine.