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5 July 2018

The Salam Fayyad hope phenomenon

By: Daoud Kuttab
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The often repeated Arab proverb describes how difficult life is if there it had any ray of hope.
For the people of Palestine in general, and the people of Gaza in particular, this ray of hope has been slowly fading for years, making life unbearable.
This fact might explain the huge popular response last week to a meeting that took place last Thursday between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his former prime minister Salam Fayyad.
Fayyad, a professor at Princeton University's prestigious Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs, was the home of his summer recess after spending his first academic year teaching. Fayyad had accepted this teaching position after US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley vetoed a decision by the UN secretary general to appoint Fayyad as a special UN representative to Libya.
While spending time at home, Fayyad was approached during a social event by a friend who wanted to know if the former prime minister, who resigned in 2013, would be willing to accept an invitation to visit president Abbas. Fayyad had no objection and the meeting took place.
Once news of the meeting was made public, a spontaneous welcoming reaction took place on social media. Fayyad was also inundated with phone calls from friend and foe alike asking him not to reject the possibility of a return to his vacated position.
While Fayyad cares very much about what was going on and the deterioration of the situation, especially in Gaza, he had and has no interest in a political return. Nevertheless, when I called him, he was stunned by the huge popular reaction that occurred, simply because he had a positive meeting with the president, during which they appear to have buried the hatchet and talked about what is needed to put things in order.
Fayyad has a clear idea on what is needed: to focus on the role of politics and leadership in today's world. He understands clearly that a leader’s role is to give people hope for a better future and a brighter tomorrow, something that few would argue is lacking in today's political climate and leadership.
The former Palestinian prime minister is adamantly opposed to the current policies that are aimed at squeezing Hamas out of control in Gaza by tightening an already depressed and besieged population. He cannot fathom the idea that Israel will deduct from the taxes and customs it collects on behalf of the Palestinian government to support the troubled Gazan population.
Fayyad is also opposed to the conditionality being imposed in the way of a true national unity effort. The idea that most senior Palestinian leaders are not meeting and resolving their differences because of a demand that meetings should be held inside Palestine is also unacceptable to him. “I would meet anywhere and under any circumstance if it could help produce the coveted national unity,” he once told me.
Part of the excitement about the possibility of a return to what the New Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman once described as Fayyadism is the fact that when he headed the Palestinian government, Fayyad actually did things. He streamlined how money is spent and ensured that people pay taxes to the treasury. Ending corruption was best noticed when he stopped the way money was being dispersed to the Palestinian security, much to the displeasure of general and senior leadership. He insisted that individuals be paid directly by bank transfers and not by giving generals a stack of money based on partially factious lists, to distribute at their will. The former International Monetary Fund official streamlined tenders and worked hard at finding ways for Palestine to be less dependent on foreign support. For example, he found a way to save the Palestinian government lots of money by purchasing government offices, instead of continuously paying rent.
But while he made sound economic decisions, Fayyad was most remembered for his insistence on being present and involved in all of what was happening in Palestine. In contrast to President Abbas, who rarely visits any location outside of Ramallah, not a day would pass without Fayyad visiting a remote location or encouraging a new startup or a worthy charity.
Of course, despite the public debate and the heightened level of expectations, Fayyad does not have a magic wand that can solve all Palestinian problems. This singular meeting with the president is not necessarily a sign that he will soon be back at his old position.
The troubles facing Palestinians are also not only of their own doing. Fayyad was a prime minister during former US President Barack Obama's first term and had excellent relations with the then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton and her team.
No one has any illusion that Fayyad could somehow reverse the most recent US decisions regarding Jerusalem or can magically reinstate Washington's support to UNRWA or put an end to US President Donald Trump’s administration's disastrous foreign policy that is about to become more complicated with the possibility of the publication of the so-called ultimate deal.
But what Fayyad and anyone else with his caliber and public standing can do is minimise the negative effects of such a policy by focusing, as Fayyad appears to be doing, on internal issues. A house divided cannot stand, and Fayyad understands that the priority must be unification as the best antidote to all the external efforts aimed against Palestinians.
Palestinians are in a dire need someone who can give them hope for a better future, with or without negotiations. The political atmosphere today might not be proper for any kind of a deal, but the time is always right for a leadership with integrity, one that insists on putting its own people first, no matter what the external circumstances are.

* A Palestinian columnist based in Amman, Jordan. - dkuttab@ammannet.net

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