"State 194" - Bracing Documentary about Building Palestine

A new documentary highlighting the efforts of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to build the framework of a Palestinian state opens May 17 in New York and Los Angeles on limited release. One hopes the distributors send it nationwide so that more Americans can see it.

State 194, directed by Emmy and Peabody Award-winning director Dan Setton, follows Fayyad and his colleagues over two years as they work to establish the basis for what they hope will become the 194th member state of the United Nations.

Unfortunately for the filmmakers, Fayyad resigned earlier this month - although he remains at his desk pending the appointment of a successor. That doesn't mean the film is not worth watching. Through it, we get to know a different kind of Palestinian than that which is usually depicted in our popular culture. Instead of a terrorist or corrupt politician, we see a U.S.-educated economist speaking in terms we can understand and respect.

The movie gives the lie to those who claim that Israel has no partner for peace on the Palestinian side. Fayyad was - and remains - committed to non-violence. In fact, his strategy mirrored to a great extent that adopted by Zionists who built the institutions that prepared them ready for statehood ahead of the moment when independence becomes a reality in 1948.

The movie's release now obviously raises the questions, why did Fayyad feel compelled to submit his resignation and who was responsible?

Fayyad was a darling of the United States and Europe and a favorite with American Jewish leaders. Delegations beat a path to his door in Ramallah and he often engaged in civilized dialogue with visiting Israelis and Jewish groups of almost all political stripes.

I vividly remember an evening at the home of a prominent American Jewish leader in Manhattan in the fall of 2010 when some 70 Jewish notables peppered him with questions and emerged completely captivated by his candor, straight-talk and most of all with his sincere wish for peace with Israel and commitment to non-violence.

The Texas-educated economist, who spent 14 years at the International Monetary Fund, had a simple idea: he would build the future Palestinian state from the ground up while instituting squeaky clean governance and fighting corruption. That way, he would grow the Palestinian economy and give the people of the West Bank a stake in a peaceful future.

For some years it worked. Under Fayyad, according to figures provided by David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Palestinian Authority built 1,700 community development programs. It constructed 120 schools, 50 health clinics and three hospitals. It paved over 1,000 miles of road and installed 850 miles of water pipes.

Israel could have done much more to help Fayyad by moving faster to remove internal barriers and roadblocks and by showing more restraint in its army raids into Palestinian-controlled territory. But even under the conditions that prevailed, by 2011 the World Bank was saying that the Palestinians were essentially prepared for statehood.

Unfortunately, this achievement was never matched by progress on the political front. In the absence of a real diplomatic initiative that can deliver a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, the state that Fayyad worked so hard to build can never become a reality. And during his years in office, peace efforts went nowhere while Israel's settler population in the West Bank continued to grow.

Fayyad never had an independent political base to shelter him through tough times and times started getting tougher last year when the West Bank economy slowed. The downturn was exacerbated by the failure of Arab states to come through with promised aid on time.

However, the final nails in Fayyad's political coffin were applied by Israel and the U.S. Congress late last year after the Palestinians went ahead with a bid to raise their status in the United Nations General Assembly to that of a full member state.

Fayyad opposed this and warned of what would happen but was overruled by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who needed some kind of political success after the Israeli offensive against Gaza last November boosted the popularity of the rival Hamas group.

In retaliation, the US Congress foolishly blocked around $200 billion in aid to the Palestinians and Israel shortsightedly withheld hundreds of millions more in Palestinian tax revenues.

Under interim peace deals, Israel collects some $100 million a month in duties on behalf of the PA. Without that money, Fayyad was unable to pay some 150,000 public employees for several months.

Around the time of President Obama's visit to the region last month, Washington released $500 million in aid to the Palestinians and Israel resumed tax transfers. But by then it was too late. Fayyad was blamed for the hardship of the workers decided to call it quits.

The most important lesson from this sad story is how fragile progress is on the Israeli-Palestinian front and how easily it can be derailed. If anyone thought that President Obama should avoid getting deeply involved in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy during his second term and should just "manage the status quo," Fayyad's downfall should disabuse them of that illusion.

The fact is, there is no status quo to manage. Unless the parties get back on track toward a two-state solution, we are facing the prospect of an economic meltdown in the West Bank, the possible collapse of the Palestinian Authority and the outbreak of a third intifada. Moving ahead with a new US-led peace initiative is more urgent that ever and the window to do so may be even narrower that we thought.

This movie is a testament to a good man who tried to do good.