No Savior, but No Fool: A Response to Nathan Brown on Salam Fayyad

Given that I’ve sung the praises (or drunk the kool-aid) of Palestinian PM Salam Fayyad in the past, I felt I’d be remiss if I didn’t reply to Nathan J. Brown’s thought-provoking obituary for the Fayyad era that recently appeared in Foreign Policy. The article, entitled “No Savior,” challenges the traditional view of Fayyad, that he is a new kind of Palestinian leader, an ex-technocrat instead of an ex-terrorist, a man who ignores deep factional disputes to get things done and make a Palestinian state a real possibility. Instead, Brown argues, Fayyad made minimal progress at developing institutions, and was merely quite good at keeping the old ones from collapsing. Most damningly, he argues that the West fundamentally misread Fayyad when it saw him as a new voice for Palestinian self-sufficiency, because Fayyad’s greatest talent was appearing competent enough to get the West to pour in buckets of aid money. Fayyad made Palestine “ready for independence” by deepening its dependence.

Palestine's departing Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. (Image via AllVoices)

I do think Brown shortchanges Fayyad on a few of the finer points–he neglects to mention, for instance, the initiative to develop Palestine’s courts so they do not have to use the Israelis as their final court of appeal. Brown’s assessment of Fayyad’s institution-building performance is important–for all that Fayyad did, there were many important things that he did not do, and this is commonly overlooked. However, Fayyad was truly dealt a terrible hand when he took over for Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh. Palestine had just experienced a brutal internal conflict that had divided it into two geographically separate rival states, and it had been alienated from much of the international community–and much of the international community’s aid. Brown correctly points out that Fayyad had to struggle to keep his head above water, and that none of his major failures were really his own fault, given that he had so little to work with.

My disagreement with Brown is on a more philosophical level–namely, what will an independent Palestinian state look like? This is, after all, the desired outcome of current Palestinian governments, and it is the yardstick we use to measure the achievements of various Palestinian leaders. For Brown, the State of Palestine will be an independent state like any other, and will thus have rather Westphalian goals–maximize its own sovereignty and develop an independent, sustainable economy. We must ask ourselves, however, if this is a realistic goal. Consider, for starters, this satirical tourist map of the West Bank by French artist Julien Boussac:

(Image via BigThink/Strange Maps)

In this map, areas of the West Bank under Israeli control are transformed into water, highlighting the physical fragmentation of its territory. If a final peace treaty is ever decided (don’t hold your breath), Israel will only be able to evacuate some of its settlements. The settlers of Gaza could be removed because they numbered only a few thousand. The settlers of the West Bank number in the hundreds of thousands, and they are more integrated into Israeli society–hardline FM Avigdor Lieberman, for instance, resides in a settlement. What’s more, there is a wide consensus among Israeli strategists that the Jordan Valley, the eastern portion of the West Bank, must have an Israeli military presence, and the rest of Palestine must not be heavily militarized–either one of these would place Israel in a position of vulnerability that it will not accept. Thus, pragmatically speaking, Palestine will forever be fragmented, and the ability of Palestinians to move between “islands” will always be at the whim of the Israelis.

Palestine’s economic outlook is even grimmer. Its population continues to grow at very high rates, and to work in second-rate lands. When goods are produced, where will they be exported? To the weak economy of Jordan? The best market for Palestine’s wares, and especially for its massive labor surplus, is Israel. If Palestine’s economy is not deeply integrated into Israel’s, it collapses–as the siege of Gaza demonstrated. Even with integration, Palestine will have great difficulty making its economy sustainable, especially in Gaza. There is, to put it bluntly, nothing to do in Gaza. Finding employment for its massive population will be impossible, especially with so many youths coming of age every year. Foreign aid will continue to be a vital ingredient of future Palestinian economies.

Palestine, then, will not be an independent state in the familiar sense. Its security policies will forever be subservient to Israel’s, and its economy will be dependent on access to Israeli markets and foreign aid. Fayyad was not cultivating an unhealthy dependence. Fayyad was building the Palestinian state that no Palestinian politician could ever admit to wanting. Accepting that this was all he could do, rather than straining for more, was Fayyad’s strength.

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