The Last Chance
HE HAS always been a restive type, but now Salam Fayyad's words come in agitated, freewheeling floods, as if he has drunk about 15 cups of coffee. Perhaps he has. Two weeks into his new job, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA) seems acutely aware of the political and moral tightrope he is walking, and that he may have mere days to rescue the vision of a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank from oblivion.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, fired the coalition government led by Hamas and appointed Mr Fayyad after the Islamist party's militias took control of Gaza last month in a showdown with forces loyal to Mr Abbas's Fatah. The last time Mr Abbas was Mr Fayyad's direct boss was in 2003, when they were prime minister and finance minister under Yasser Arafat's presidency.
Then as now, Israel had been withholding tax revenues that it collects on the PA's behalf, and foreign donors were threatening to cut off funds. Then as now, Fatah grandees grumbled that Mr Fayyad had been imposed by America. Today his reputation precedes him: Israel has agreed to start restoring some $560m in arrears since Hamas won power in elections 18 months ago, and the donors have lifted a boycott on the PA.
But this time the stakes are higher. Mr Abbas, along with Israel, America and some of their allies, also wants to loosen Hamas's grip on Gaza. Israel aims to improve life in the West Bank, where Fatah is much stronger, but let only humanitarian aid into Gaza, whose economy is driven by commercial trade. Gaza's border crossings are closed to all but humanitarian supplies, and Israel's customs service has blocked overseas imports destined for Gaza, in effect sequestering some 1,300 shipping containers at Israeli ports, according to Majdi Khalil of the Palestinian Shippers' Council. Yet if the strategy fails to marginalise Hamas—and even some Israeli officials are sceptical that Hamas will relinquish control, let alone be removed by force—the two parts of a putative Palestinian state could remain split.
Mr Fayyad's government is supposed to work for all Palestinians, but, he says, “we take into account the need for goods to get to Gaza without undermining the other guiding principle of policy, which is not to legitimate Hamas.” That is an agonising balancing act, and he clearly knows it; a suggestion that he is trying to “squeeze” Gaza is met with hot protest.
Mr Fayyad is no shrinking violet. He imposed financial reforms on an unwilling Arafat by making the banks channel funds away from other ministries to his and forcing the security chiefs to accept salaries into bank accounts instead of in envelopes. This week, as the PA started paying its employees full wages for the first time in months, he suspended the salaries of some 20,000 people hired since his last stint as finance minister ended in late 2005. One-third are security staff appointed by Fatah before Hamas took power, but the Islamists are portraying it as an attack on them.
That, and what Gazans will perceive as his complicity in Israel's economic throttling of them, pose a challenge to the “legitimacy” that is Mr Fayyad's current favourite word—even more so given that Mr Abbas must find a legitimate way to keep the new government in place after its 30th day without the obligatory ratifying vote from the Hamas-dominated legislature. Hamas's military wing has reportedly called Mr Fayyad a “traitor”, prompting him to beef up his security detail.
Another big challenge will be to impose law and order in the West Bank, not only against possible insurrection by Hamas, but against armed militias loyal to other parties (including Fatah) and criminal gangs. Mr Fayyad says his watchwords will be “security, security, security”, but even his fans are sceptical. “If an emergency government cannot take care of security in the West Bank, how can they convince me that they will do it in Gaza?” asks Abdul Malik Jaber, the head of Paltel, the telecoms monopoly and a self-described “good friend” of the prime minister.
That test is even harder now that Hamas has secured the release of Alan Johnston, a BBC journalist held for 114 days by a criminal family in Gaza. Although the powerful Dughmush clan got to keep its weapons in return for giving up Mr Johnston, the Islamists now look like they rule the roost in Gaza. Mr Fayyad and his precarious government will have to display a similar authority in the West Bank. It sounds like an impossible job, but as Mr Fayyad says, “This may very well be our last chance.”
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