By Brian Katulis, Center for American Progress
As Marc mentioned, he and I had several days of meetings in Jerusalem and Ramallah last week (for a look at how the landscape and geography is changing in these areas as well as Bethlehem, take a look at this slideshow. I stayed on for another week
to join another set of meetings as part of a larger group organized
by the Rabin Center and the Milken Institute. I’ll be writing
more about the trip with Marc and also at my organization’s website and blog. We’re also going to put out a longer
report with some thoughts on next steps for U.S. policy.
On Thursday afternoon in Ramallah, I was part of a group that met with Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who was first appointed prime minister in June 2007 after the Hamas armed takeover of Gaza (Fayyad stepped down this spring for a brief spell in the hopes that this would pave the way for a Fatah-Hamas unity government).
Fayyad is viewed as a competent technocrat who has made some headway in building Palestinian Authority institutions. He’s an economist with a PhD from the United States, and he worked for years with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. With this background and because of some progress he has made on the PA institutional development side, he has developed a strong image among U.S. and international actors, and most of the Israeli officials and analysts I’ve met on the trip have had good things to say about him.
His image with the Palestinian public, divided as it is into many camps, is somewhat more mixed than it is in international circles. A recent poll conducted in May found that 48 percent of Palestinians opposed the formation of Fayyad’s government, and another 42 percent favored it. In earlier meetings with Palestinian analysts and observers last week, several people noted that Palestinians sometimes call Fayyad’s government “Dayton’s cabinet,” after General Keith Dayton, the U.S. Security Coordinator who has a modest program training one part of the Palestinian security forces. Fayyad lacks a strong political base among Palestinians - he’s not a member of any of the leading Palestinian political factions, his political party won only a couple of seats in the 2006 elections, and for the most part he largely tries to stay above the complicated fray of intra-Palestinian politics.
Earlier this week, Fayyad assumed a bit more of a political role than he has typically done by giving a speech at Al Quds University in Abu Dis, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem. The speech was an important one - he reiterated the importance of building Palestinian institutions and set a goal for creating a Palestinian state in two years.
The most interesting thing about the speech, in my view, is not what he said, but the fact that he made the speech and then caught some flak from other Palestinians, including members of Fatah, a party that holds cabinet positions in Fayyad’s government. As this article notes, several senior members of Fatah criticized the speech, saying that Fayyad went beyond the bounds of his office. “He is entitled to his political ambitions. But it’s none of his business as prime minister to deliver such a speech. He has nothing to do with the negotiations (with Israel),” one unnamed Fatah leader told Reuters. Fahmy Zahrir, a spokesman for Fatah, reacted to the speech by saying “The Basic Law is clear that the prime minister's responsibilities lie in internal administration. It is clear external affairs are the responsibility of the PLO [the Palestine Liberation Organization]."
In yesterday’s meeting, I asked Prime Minister Fayyad about the fact that he caught some flak from other Palestinians about the fact that he gave this speech. He brushed off the criticism, saying essentially that Palestinian politics is rough, and that he has been criticized a lot in the past and he doesn’t pay much attention to it. Then, he made a strong and clear statement about the next Palestinian elections, which are under discussion for January 2010. Fayyad stressed that he believed there should be “no equivocation on the issue of elections.” He said there is discussion about having the next election in January of next year, and “I hope that will be kept.”
Fayyad’s statement was interesting, because it ran against the grain of the conventional wisdom from most of the other meetings we’ve had out here. Most people we’ve met with have concluded that the chances of holding the next elections seem very slim, for a variety of reasons. The continued fragmentation in Palestinian politics - the long-standing division between Hamas and Fatah, as well as internal fights within both movements - leads some analysts to conclude that elections are not likely given the absence of any consensus on how to share power. At this point, Palestinians can’t seem to agree on the basic framework and the modalities for holding an election. Others point to a likely disinclination on the part of the new Israeli government to see the Palestinians go ahead with elections, because of the risk of rewinding back to the 2006 elections, which Hamas won.
Fayyad’s speech and his answer on elections raised a broader question about U.S. policy and the Obama administration: Has the Obama team gamed out the Palestinian political transition component of its emerging strategy to achieve a two-state solution?
If so, what is the strategy? The political negotiations among Palestinians are fraught with several layers of complexity and raise some vexing questions for the Obama administration. Thus far, the administration has worked hard to put together a top-notch, experienced team, and it hit the ground running by getting them to engage on important issues like pressing the question of settlements (as Marc mentioned in his last post), efforts to address the movement and access problems in the West Bank, and a push on important tactical initiatives like building security forces and improving the economy, all steps that I’ve supported. The basic theory seems to be to try to improve the lives of ordinary Palestinians and have the political benefit of these improvements accrue to the “pragmatic” Palestinian leaders who are seen to be implementing them. It remains to be seen whether these steps on their own are enough to enhance the legitimacy of the current leaders.
In addition, a lot needs to be done to meet the January 2010 target for the next elections. Most experts say that at least a 2-3 month lead time is needed to prepare the administration and ballots after decisions are made about what type of electoral system would be used. To get to a decision on elections, there are a couple of key political hoops.
First, there’s the matter of the Hamas-Fatah divide. The Egyptian government has been working this issue, and there have been some signs of possible movement ahead on a deal. But if there’s a deal between Fatah and Hamas, what should the United States do to support this electoral process? What can it legally do? Hamas is on the list of foreign terrorist organizations, and any type of contact and U.S. assistance by law cannot go to Hamas. U.S. Middle East Special Envoy Mitchell indicated earlier this year that the Obama administration would welcome a Palestinian unity government, a shift from the previous administration, but he was clear that Hamas would have to abide by the Quartet’s conditions, including that it would renounce violence, recognize Israel, and accept previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements.
Second, there remains serious fragmentation on the Fatah-PLO-PA axis, which brings us back to the sniping among Fatah leaders about Fayyad’s speech earlier this week. This week, the leaders of Fatah, the part of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, set August 4 as the date for its first party congress in two decades. Fatah plans to hold its party congress in Bethlehem, the first time the party would hold its congress on Palestinian territory. Abbas and other Fatah leaders are trying to heal internal rifts and consolidate power in the event that elections move forward. All of this is easier said than done, with long-standing tensions inside of the movement, and the added layer of possible tensions between Fayyad and members of Fatah and the PLO.
The elements of Obama’s approach on the Israeli-Palestinian front - holding the line on settlements, boosting Palestinian institutions, supporting economic development - are vital for achieving some progress, but on their own don’t yet constitute a clear strategy, particularly when one looks at the complicated intra-Palestinian political dynamics.
In a way, these challenges echo some of the long-standing challenges in Iraq that both Marc and I have written about before. A central question for U.S. is how to help political actors achieve legitimacy and consolidate power so they can benefit their own people. Diplomacy, security sector assistance and economic development efforts are key ingredients but are incomplete without a theory of the case on how to help deal with the internal politics and bridge divisions between different power centers. Without a clearer strategy on the Palestinian political transition, the Obama administration risks either more of the same or a repeat of mistakes made by previous administrations.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.