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The Ben-Gurion of Palestine?

This is a guest post by Michael Weiss

One of the starker tragedies of the present-day Middle East is that, for the first time in 60 years, both Israel and Palestine have got prime ministers who are Western-trained economists with roughly congruent plans for anticipating a two state-solution. They’ve both broken with the orthodoxies of their respective ruling parties. They’ve both been scorned by their domestic media no matter what course of action they’ve taken. And, as if exhausted by mere rhetoric or political grandstanding, they’ve both exhibited an abiding interest in the bottom line. Yet still no progress can be made toward a final-status agreement. Now up at Tablet Magazine is my lengthy profile of (and interview with) the Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, an extremely impressive man who represents what I would call the post-Nakba identity of Palestinian politics: Anti-ideological, deeply pragmatic, and without any real democratic legitimacy in a precarious coalition government that might not exist by this time next year. So well respected is Fayyad that Shimon Peres dubbed him the “Ben-Gurion of Palestine,” and one former Bush administration official refused to go on the record for this piece, claiming that any praise he could offer of the premier would not help Fayyad’s cause.

Fayyad speaks perfect English with an accent marked by his cosmopolitan upbringing. Though he grew up in the West Bank city of Tulkarm—he was 15 years old when the Six-Day War broke out in 1967—and went to college at American University in Beirut, all of Fayyad’s graduate work was done the United States. In Texas, to be exact: he earned an MBA at St. Edward’s University, a Jesuit-run liberal-arts college just outside Austin, and a doctorate in economics from the University of Texas at Austin. His thesis adviser was a leading macroeconomist, William Barnett, who told me that one memory that stands out of Fayyad the student was how badly in debt he always was—not necessarily a compliment for a budding economist. But this was because, Barnett explained, Fayyad was constantly bailing out friends who were even worse off financially. How did a Palestinian expat comport himself in George W. Bush country? “I am a Jew,” Barnett said, “and he chose me to be his thesis adviser. Does that answer your question?”

Post-graduate stints at the St. Louis Federal Reserve and the World Bank followed, and then Fayyad went to work for the International Monetary Fund in 1995 as representative to the Palestinian Authority, which had been established a year earlier, under the Oslo Accords. He credits a sense of patriotism with his return home and his decision, in 2001, to accept the portfolio of P.A. finance minister, a job that Yasser Arafat was forced to offer him because of angry domestic protests about P.A. graft and corruption.

Throughout the 1990s, poverty was endemic in the West Bank, and yet Arafat and his wife, Suha, lived like royalty. The International Monetary Fund estimated that from 1995 to 2000 Arafat stole $900 million from the Palestinian Authority. Fayyad, with his advanced degrees, Italian suits, and reputation for incorruptibility, set to work modernizing and un-corrupting this third-world political economy. In 2003, he gave an interview to Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes in which he accused Arafat of using a network of monopolies in commodities like flour and cement to siphon off most of the cash. According to David Samuels, who wrote about Arafat’s reign of corruption in a 2005 profile in The Atlantic, “the price of a ton of cement in Gaza [was] $74, of which $17 went into Arafat’s private bank account.” The biggest sieve, though, was the Petroleum Corporation, which operated as a P.A. slush fund. “If there was not money in the treasury, [Arafat] went to the Petroleum Corporation,” Fayyad told Stahl.


If any of Fayyad’s policies is liable to undermine his reputation as a law-and-order dogmatist, it’s the one with unquestionably revolutionary import. In late August, the prime minister announced the boldest Palestinian plan for nation-building ever conceived: the creation of a de facto Palestinian state by 2011. In a 65-page “blueprint,” Fayyad laid out a reunified country with enough infrastructure, municipal services, and tax incentives for foreign investors to make actual statehood viable—and, he hopes, legal statehood ultimately inevitable. Fayyad envisioned an oil refinery in the West Bank, an international airport in the Jordan Valley, and a reclaimed Qalandia airport just north of Jerusalem “to receive [President Obama] landing in his Air Force One,” as he gleefully told U.S. officials upon unveiling his blueprint. Obama seems willing to help that contingency come to pass; he promised an additional $20 million in aid to the P.A. shortly after Fayyad’s announcement.

Indeed, Fayyad’s goal to “end the occupation despite the occupation” by creating material conditions—or “facts on the ground,” as he puts it, co-opting a slogan of the Israeli pro-settlement community—enjoys broad international support. In September, Tony Blair, chief envoy of the Quartet on the Middle East—a diplomatic conglomerate that represents the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and Russia—hosted the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee for Assistance to the Palestinians on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. There, donor nations offered $400 million to the P.A. by the end of 2009.

It also resembles, at first blush, Netanyahu’s own call for “economic peace,” which likewise places the immediate emphasis on bottom-up Palestinian development in anticipation of a formal political statehood. But if Fayyad is seconding an Israeli agenda, he’s the last to admit it. “Look, I’m an economist by training, not someone who would cast any doubts on the importance of economic improvements,” he told me. “Nevertheless, economics is just one leg on which a future Palestine must stand. To think that ‘economic peace’ is going to be a substitute for the political tract—that’s not something I would agree with.”