YEDIOTH AHRONOTH interview with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad November 22, 2009

by Nahum Barnea  -  Yedioth Ahronoth (p.B2)    -  20 November 2009


The Ben-Gurion Model

Grand Park is the most luxurious hotel in Ramallah. On Sunday afternoon, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad held a press conference there. About 20 local reporters, security people, Fayyad, US Senator Joe Lieberman and others from a US congressional delegation, crowded into a small room at the end of a corridor. There was a smell of cigarettes in the air. There was a definite lack of oxygen.

The right to the first question was given to Ha’aretz reporter Amira Hass. She had two. The first was for Fayyad. She reminded him that three people from his village of Deir al-Ghosoon had been arrested by the IDF for demonstrating against the separation fence. How can you talk about an agreement with Israel when this is what Israel does, she admonished.

She asked Lieberman how he, as a Jew, could accept Israel’s discriminatory attitude toward minorities.

Both felt awkward. Lieberman is not used to having his origins thrown at him.  “What could I say,” he told me afterwards with a sad smile. “I said I supported the establishment of two states.” Fayyad met with me and Yedioth Ahronoth reporter Roni Shaked again, the next day, in his Ramallah office.  I asked him how he felt. He was amused. “For some people, I’m not loyal enough to Palestine,” he said. “Many of them are Israelis.”

The Americans—Congress people and administration officials—admire Fayyad. In the expanse between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, there is no living politician whom they admire more. Like a series of politicians educated in the United States who settled in eastern Europe and the Third World, he knows how to talk to them in their language, their values, their temperament. And in contrast to the destructive legacy of Palestinian politics, he is not addicted to victimhood, he does not put his fate in other’s hands, those of Arab rulers or suicide bombers. He takes action.

His source of inspiration is David Ben-Gurion and the Zionist enterprise that preceded the establishment of the State of Israel. “The State of Israel,” says Fayyad, “was not established in 1948. It was declared in 1948. The state was established earlier, in the course of years of building institutions. When I say this on the Palestinian street, I’m accused of being a Zionist.”
And not just any Zionist, a Mapainik.

How do the Palestinian public accept the plan, I asked.

“With apprehension,” says Fayyad. “They ask, will it really happen? If it’s so good, why wait two years? Do we truly want independence?

“Yesterday we celebrated 21 years to the declaration of Palestinian independence. What independence? We are celebrating something non-existent.”

Ostensibly, the Israeli government should embrace Fayyad warmly. His plan talks about building a state from the bottom up, from the police station, the post office, the economic factories and budget transparency. This is the partner Israel always wanted: an enemy of terror, clean of corruption, who enforces the law, who encourages business, who is serious and trustworthy. But government ministers view Fayyad as one of the most dangerous enemies to the future of Israel. They are certain that he has reached a secret deal with the Americans: he will provide them with an orderly Palestine, and they will not cast a veto on a UN resolution that recognizes the 1967 borders as the borders of the new state. Even if there is no deal at the moment, the ministers warn, there will be in the end. The world will force Israel to evacuate the area to Fayyad’s candy box state.

Fayyad smiles. “Reports that I’ve supposedly coordinated everything with the Americans and Europeans flatter me, but in truth, I haven’t coordinated anything. I’ve seen a number of positive responses to my paper, and couldn’t believe what was written. I want to complete the building of the institutions within two years. I’ve told people that I have to present something that will put an end to the occupation. This is not in place of negotiations. It is meant in order to encourage negotiations.”
And if the negotiations fail, we asked.

“If the institutions work and are faithful to the norms acceptable in the world, the occupation will appear less and less normal,” he said. “The pressure to end it will be very strong.”

There are quite a few holes in Fayyad’s plan: it does not explain how Hamas will be removed from Gaza. It does not resolve the core issues that separate the two peoples—Jerusalem, the right of return, ending the conflict, borders. It represents only Fayyad: top Fatah leaders in the West Bank are undermining it, both because he is not a member of their party, and also because they view him as an American agent. Abu Mazen isn’t helping. Personal relations between them are about as good as those between Tzippi Livni and Shaul Mofaz.

Root Canal

On the wall of his office, in a place where others hang the Dome of the Rock, the el-Aksa Mosque or Arafat, Fayyad has hung a photograph of the roots of a 2,000 year-old olive tree. The photographer is Osama Silwadi. Silwadi is a victim of the era of anarchy: an errant bullet fired by a Palestinian crippled him for life. The olive tree is no coincidence, nor is the photographer’s biography.
“The Israelis say two states,” says Fayyad, “but I’m not certain that they’ve internalized the significance. Netanyahu’s Bar Ilan speech was a positive step, but I’m more interested in where this leads, what happens afterwards.”

Do you expect the IDF to pull its troops out of the West Bank, I asked.

“Under no circumstances,” he said. “What I want today is an absolute stop to IDF infiltrations into PA areas. Do not enter Area A , do not enter Area B.”

But without the IDF, I said, you’re lost. You have three battalions. The IDF has 20. Without the IDF, the West Bank is liable to turn into Gaza.

“I disagree with you,” Fayyad said. “You think that good things are taking place here and not in Gaza because there is no IDF in Gaza and here there is. It is not accurate to say that the IDF is not in Gaza, and it is not accurate to say that the IDF is here. Two years ago, when the Israelis thought that the situation in the West Bank was okay, the situation was terrible. It was anarchy here. A complete disgrace. What made the difference was our new security doctrine and proper administration.”

And the lessons that the security organization leaders learned from their defeat in Gaza, I said.

“That too, of course,” says Fayyad. “Even Palestinians who hate us thank us for instating law and order. Nobody believed that this would happen. Now they complain that we’ve been diverted from the main issue, that we’re helping the occupation.
“We can tell people today: your lives are better, the economy is better, personal security is better. We are doing all this not in order to make the occupation more tolerable, but in order to end it.”

How did it happen, I asked, that the argument over a settlement construction freeze became an enormous stumbling block preventing negotiations from resuming.

“Something ridiculous happened,” Fayyad said. “Instead of talking about this in the broader context, we are arguing over a balcony for a kindergarten, a house here and a house there. From our point of view, this is a political issue. Nine months have passed since Obama entered the White House, and the construction continues. This makes it hard for us to market the peace process to our public.
“We very much want to resume the negotiations, but we remember the past failures. In a few months the Americans will tell us again, sorry, this is the only agreement that we can get from Israel.

“You build settlements on the mountain ridge, and wonder why we care, after all, all the settlements use only small percentages of West Bank land. But around the settlements you make a security zone, and then roads are paved, and our roads are closed for security reasons. The settlements strangle us.”

Will you be able to work with the current Israeli government, I asked.

“I’m not waiting for Netanyahu to fall,” Fayyad said. “Any prime minister is acceptable for me. Sometimes I think that it’s not good for me to meet with the opposition in Israel—no matter who the opposition is. Israeli politics is better left for the Israelis.”
Arafat, I said, claimed that he was a great expert in Israeli politics. In practice, he didn’t understand much.
Fayyad laughed. “We think that we know the Israelis better than they know themselves,” he said, “and you think you know us better than we know ourselves. Both we and you are mistaken.”

Fayyad is not certain that his plan will succeed. “We’ll never know if we don’t try,” he says. “I invite all the Israelis to give it a chance.”
In the 100 years of the conflict, the Jews have been the ones who initiated, proposed, consented. The Palestinians were the ones who waited for a miracle. Today the Israeli government is waiting for a miracle, versus one Palestinian who is initiating. “All these years we took a back seat,” says Fayyad. “My plan puts us in the driver’s seat for the first time. As far as I’m concerned, that is the main thing.”

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