Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad: 'An Independent Palestine Is in Israel's Interest'

Elisabeth Braw wrote this article for Metro .

"On August 26 there will be a Palestinian state, and it will be open to all," says Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in exclusive Metro interview.

By Elisabeth Braw, Metro World News, Ramallah

He's the Prime Minister of the Palestine National Authority. But traveling between his office in Ramallah and his Jerusalem home, Salam Fayyad must nonetheless pass Israeli military checkpoints.

Soon this may change. Later this year Dr. Fayyad, a congenial economist and former World Bank official, will ask the UN General Assembly to recognize Palestinian statehood. Fayyad has already transformed Ramallah, the Palestinians' provisional capital, into a stable, bustling city that features branches of international banks and even five-star hotels. The new buildings are rising next to an old-fashioned city center that features old-style vegetable markets, men-only cafés, and plenty of female drivers. In fact, Fayyad is building an unofficial Palestine that he hopes will show the world that Palestinians can govern themselves -- and do so peacefully.

Metro met Fayyad for a lengthy interview at his office in Ramallah, which is guarded by Palestinian policemen who refer to him simply as "The Doctor." Ramallah is located only 10 kilometers from Jerusalem, but to travel between the two cities, visitors have to pass Israeli military checkpoints. (West Bankers need permits to enter Jerusalem.)

The Israeli daily Haaretz recently described you as Israel's enemy number one -- because you're nice, you're not corrupt, and you're successful. What does that say about Israel and the Palestinians?

The important thing is the substance. We're doing our best to achieve our goals, but the context in which we're operating is so challenging that you can't allow yourself to get distracted by characterizations on either side. We're getting ready for a State of Palestine and are doing everything we possibly can to expedite the end of the Israeli occupation. We Palestinians have to get out of the mood of waiting for something to happen. We're doing something positive and constructive from the Palestinian point of view, but also from the Israeli point of view. A stable, peaceful Palestine is in everybody's interest. It will be a state founded on universal values like respect of others, non-discrimination and religious, gender and ethnic equality.

So you're trying to catapult the Palestinians into a Middle Eastern role model?
All we want is a state of our own. If in the process we manage to do it with such high standards, all the better. Our right to freedom has always been seen as something we somehow have to earn, which is unfair. But if we can show the world a stable Palestine with a well-functioning infrastructure that provides reliable services to its residents, we'll have created the reality of a state. It will be very hard for the world to ignore it, and will kickstart the political process.

You plan to announce a State of Palestine on August 26 this year. So in September, I'll be able to call you Prime Minister of Palestine?
You'll be able to call someone Prime Minister of Palestine. I'll be the first person to congratulate him or her on becoming the first Prime Minister of Palestine. We've been waiting for this for so long, and so has the world. We have to keep up the positive dynamic we've started; we have to keep being persistent to create positive change every day to enable the State of Palestine to be born.

Are you certain it will happen?
Yes. In August 2009 we set ourselves the goal of Palestinian statehood in August 2011, and here we are. I have no Plan B or Plan C. We have only this plan and we think it's going to work. In order for it to happen, we Palestinians have to believe in it. It's that sense of inevitability we're trying to create by determination and perseverance. If you don't have a timeline, you don't have a good plan. We're working on the ground to get fully ready for the State of Palestine. It's what you do expecting a birth.

There's a segment of the population, also among Palestinians, who think that this rendezvous with freedom will become a rendezvous with failure. They think we have another seven months to go before we're going to crash. You have to live with such sentiments. But don't underestimate the importance of instilling confidence. That's a very important part of leadership. You have to deal with cynicism and, among Palestinians, also a certain defeatism. For too long, the Palestinian reaction to the occupation has been submissiveness on one end of the spectrum and belligerence on the other end. But we'll never reach our goal if we're belligerent or submissive. We have to create a positive agenda. Particularly as we have improved security, which was the most challenging task, and built up the economy, Palestinians have started believing in this approach. This approach is transformative, and it's transformative to the Israelis, too. For many years, a majority of both Israelis and Palestinians have favored a two-state solution, but didn't think it was possible. Now Palestinian statehood is being transformed from the abstract into the realm of the possible.

But you won't remain Prime Minister when Palestine becomes a state?
I don't plan to seek a political role for myself. My focus is help carry out the vision of a State of Palestine. My ultimate aspiration is just to be there when it happens. This is personal for all of us Palestinians. Who cares whether you're Prime Minister or a regular citizen when it happens? Whoever takes over as Prime Minister will carry it forward, and I'll do whatever I can to help Palestine make a contribution to the region and the international community.

What will the geography of Palestine look like?
It will comprise Gaza and the West Bank, and the West Bank includes East Jerusalem. This is the territory occupied in 1967. The two areas will be connected by a safe passage, something that's actually in the Interim Accord between Israel and the Palestinians but hasn't yet happened. The separation of Gaza and the West Bank has contributed to the political separation that we're going through right now.

Are there other factors?
The most important factor in the political separation between Gaza and the West Bank is the state of security. Militias shouldn't be allowed to operate in Gaza. Nonviolence has tremendous power, and it focuses people's attention on the most important issues. Nonviolence has worked so many other times in history: in the US civil rights movements and in countries like India gaining independence, and I believe it will work for us too.

Settlements are continuing in East Jerusalem. Will East Jerusalem be part of the new Palestine?
Jerusalem is of great importance not only to Palestinians and Israelis but also to Jews, Muslims and Christians around the world. The pursuit of one's faith should be respected. But to get a resolution to conflicts like this it's important to separate issues of sovereignty, meaning political issues, from issues regarding people's pursuit of their faith. Once you begin to draw a line between these two issues, the status of Jerusalem can be resolved. Everyone should have equal rights and equal access, at all times, to the religious sites. This is the Holy Land, the cradle of three monotheistic religions. Recently Israel declared certain sites in Palestinian neighborhoods "sites of religious significance." Here on my wall I have a painting of Abraham's tomb. Well, Abraham is the father of both Judaism, Islam and Christianity. But the tomb of Abraham is located on Palestinian territory occupied by Israel in 1967. The solution to Jewish interest in a religious site can't be that it should be part of Israel. What is important is that people have access to religious sites, without any questions asked.

So, what you're proposing is that Jewish settlements on Palestinian territories have to stop, but that Jews and others will have the right to buy a home in Palestine?
Palestine will be a modern country with a progressive legal code. It won't discriminate against anyone, and it will be open to all. Of course the situation is a bit more complicated, with the perception of us Palestinians being what it is. But everyone is called upon to protect humankind. The territory we'll have is very small, but being open is a sign of strength.

What's your position on the separation wall?
It's ugly, isn't it? And to those people who live nearby, it's like a monster. 85% of the wall is inside Palestinian territory, but that figure doesn't even begin to explain the agony felt by the people affected by the wall. The land the wall is built on is owned by individuals who now have lost their land completely or lost access to it. It's a land-grab, and it has curtailed our ability to pursue economic development. And settler violence against Palestinians near the wall is a big challenge, because we want to stay on the path of nonviolence.

Will the State of Palestine come into being with the wall and the current settlers remaining on Palestinian territory?
Under international law, the wall is illegal, and so are the settlements. Am I supposed to, just because the wall and the settlers are there, take it as a given that they should be there? And in what way does the wall provide security to Israel? If Israel wants to have a wall, let them build it on the border or their own territory.

You're an economist. When will the Palestinian economy become viable?
One way of measuring viability is the ability of a country to satisfy its residents with its own resources without relying on foreign assistance. Our reliance on foreign assistance is decreasing, and we're reducing our deficit. Think of how great our potential will be once we can operate in freedom! Once the occupation ends and we can move freely and have access to international markets, I project a double-digit growth every year.

Next to your desk you have a picture of an olive tree. Why?
I'm very attached to it. I grew up picking olives, and one part of my job I especially love is being able to visit olive growers. I take this picture with me wherever I go.