Ramallah, West Bank — It’s difficult not to like Salam Fayyad. The prime minister of the Palestinian Authority has an avuncular demeanor and old-fashioned professorial charm. He boasts a doctorate in economics from the University of Texas at Austin and remains loyal to the Longhorns. He speaks in charmingly accented, rapid-fire English. In a spacious conference room in the palatial government complex where he maintains his offices, he is generous with his time, answering questions from me and other members of a delegation of American national-security professionals on a wide range of issues.
One need not agree with everything Fayyad says to appreciate that he is the kind of Palestinian leader with whom Israeli leaders could make peace — if Israeli leaders could negotiate with him, and if he could deliver a majority of Palestinians willing to accept a compromise solution to the conflict. Fundamentally, here’s what that would mean: Palestinians would have to unambiguously recognize Israel’s right to exist within secure borders. In exchange, Israel would do everything possible to facilitate the development of a free and viable Palestinian state. What are the chances that Fayyad can achieve that? Roughly zero to none. Fayyad has few supporters in the West Bank — and even fewer in Hamas-controlled Gaza. He was not elected prime minister; he was appointed in 2007 by Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas who claimed the power to do so on the basis of “national emergency.” As for Abbas, he was elected to his position in January 2005. His four-year term ended in 2009. New elections have been postponed indefinitely. Similarly, the Palestinian Legislative Council, which sits in Gaza, was elected to a four-year term in January 2006. The following year, Hamas staged a bloody coup against the P.A. in Gaza. New legislative elections also remain unscheduled. American and European diplomats value Fayyad’s skills and trust his integrity. So long as he is prime minister, they feel better about pouring in aid — more per capita than to any country in Africa, Asia, or Latin America — that keeps the P.A. afloat. Israelis respect Fayyad, too. You do understand that all this makes him less popular — not more — with the broad Palestinian public? Of course, popularity is not the only source — or even the primary source — of power in the Palestinian territories. But Fayyad does not command a militia. And, presumably because he is seen as a moderate, he receives no financial backing from such oil-rich Muslim countries as Iran and Qatar. Hamas leaders — who do receive support from both Iran and Qatar — openly detest Fayyad. Finally, though Fayyad was appointed by Abbas, he is not close to Abbas, who, in addition to heading the Palestinian Authority, leads the Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization which holds the reins — more or less — on the West Bank. Halfway through our conversation, Fayyad asked not be quoted, so I’ll respect that. But I’m revealing nothing new if I say he gets that Hamas’s openly declared threat to exterminate Israel is not conducive to peace processing. He understands, too, that there is a desperate need for political reform and institution-building in the Palestinian territories. He has been working toward that goal determinedly, if not entirely successfully. As we leave the prime minister’s offices, we see that demonstrators have gathered outside, mostly civil servants peacefully protesting the fact that it has been a long time since they have received their paychecks. Ramallah, the de facto capital of the West Bank, lies six miles north of Jerusalem in the Judean Mountains. By the standards of non-oil producing Middle Eastern countries, it is neither depressed nor depressing. Buildings are of white Jerusalem stone with red tile roofs. There are mosques with tall minarets and green domes; palm trees and stone walls; modern hotels and good restaurants that serve cold, locally brewed beer. A fair amount of new construction is underway, but there also are empty lots, strewn with rubble. In some of them, goats graze. Ramallah may not be the ideal Palestinian city of the future, but, as it happens, an attempt to build that metropolis is underway on hilltops less than six miles to the northwest. It’s called Rawabi and it’s the first planned city in the West Bank, a project that will cost $1 billion, most of which is coming from Qatar. The first residents are to begin moving in within a year. In five to seven years, it is to have homes for 10,000 Palestinian families, as well as a commercial center, a cultural center, medical facilities, stores, cafes, and a giant amphitheater. Bashar Masri, the elegant and eloquent entrepreneur behind this project, acknowledges that, to succeed, Rawabi will need businesses and jobs — high-tech would be his preference. That will require foreign investors confident that their money will not end up in the foreign bank accounts of corrupt officials. It would help, too, if Rawabi and all of what Masri calls Palestine were to enjoy not just peaceful but cooperative relations with the little start-up nation to its west. Both Masri and Fayyad favor that outcome — of that I have little doubt. But with Palestinian power divided between a jihadist Hamas and a vacillating Fatah, and with Islamists who are committed to Israel’s extermination ascendant throughout much of the Middle East, I have no idea how they get there from here. — Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.