Worldview: Fayyad building framework for Palestinian statehood

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, shown waving, hopes to "transform statehood from the abstract to the concrete."

RAMALLAH, West Bank - Serious efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been on hold until after the U.S. elections. Both sides thought President Obama couldn't focus on the peace process until then, although people here are debating whether he will engage more deeply after his party's electoral losses.

But there is one official who hasn't been hanging on the U.S. vote: Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. He is too busy working on the second half of his two-year program to build a Palestinian state.

Fayyad's project is called "Homestretch to Freedom: Ending the Occupation, Establishing the State," and it is due to be completed in August 2011. His plan is in sync with the goal set by Obama, along with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, to reach a peace deal by next September.

Of course, few believe negotiations will produce Palestinian statehood in a year's time, and right now the process is in limbo. Yet Fayyad, a compact, English-speaking, no-nonsense economist who formerly worked for the International Monetary Fund, refuses to wait.

He is busy upgrading infrastructure, refurbishing schools, and bolstering the unified Palestinian security forces that have cracked down on crime and on members of Hamas in the West Bank. He insists that all security forces come under government control and opposes violent resistance to Israel. He has done more to create the physical framework of a future state and institute a transparent budget than any previous Palestinian official.

"Building to statehood is a key job of the Palestinian Authority, which should have been undertaken from day one," he told me. We sat in his neat, spare, attractively furnished Ramallah office, and he said, with a passion unusual for a bureaucrat: "We felt it was important to create a positive dynamic that would begin to change the status quo."

Surveys show that the majority in both Israel and Palestinian areas still favors a two-state solution, but neither side believes it is possible. "Our idea was to transform statehood from the abstract to the concrete," Fayyad explained.

You can see the results all over the West Bank. Ramallah is booming, with new public and private office buildings and apartment complexes. The criminal gangs that haunted Nablus are gone, and business is picking up in Hebron and Jenin. Work is proceeding on the first planned Palestinian town of Rawabi, near Ramallah.

Yet it would be a big mistake to believe, as many Israelis do, that an "economic peace" can substitute for statehood. The status quo cannot be maintained indefinitely if political talks fail.

Indeed, Fayyadism is not about achieving an interim solution, but about "getting ready for statehood. Economic development is possible under occupation, but sustainable development is not," the prime minister says.

He is trying to wean the Palestinian economy from heavy dependence on international donors, but private investors are wary while occupation lasts. That's because Israel still controls 60 percent of West Bank land, along with key roads and the flow of imports and exports. Many Israeli checkpoints have recently been lifted, but numerous roadblocks still impede commerce and farming.

Equally obstructive, says Fayyad, are "capricious" Israeli restrictions on permits for building vital infrastructure. An example: Construction in Rawabi has been held up for more than a year because builders have been unable to get an Israeli permit for an access road.

"Some Israeli officials may talk of 'economic peace' as a panacea," says Fayyad, "but it won't ever be in lieu of what needs to happen politically - the end of occupation."

However, the list of challenges facing the Palestinian premier is long and daunting:

He is a technocrat, without a broad political base.

The Palestinian leadership is split between Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, and Fayyad admits there can be no state until there is one leadership.

In the absence of political progress, many West Bankers complain that Fayyad's security forces are helping Israel.

Peace talks may not restart, or may achieve nothing. If that happens, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas may ask the United States or the United Nations to recognize a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But without Israeli acquiescence, change will be blocked.

Yet Fayyad is undaunted. He is wholly focused on creating "facts on the ground" that have the "transformative power" to convince his own people, and the world, that Palestinian statehood is possible. (He opposes any unilateral declaration of statehood as meaningless.)

He hopes these facts on the ground will have a positive influence on the political process. "On any given day there is a lot to complain about, even cry about," he says, "but we must continue to act beyond victimhood, to take the initiative."

No wonder former Israeli cabinet minister Yossi Sarid wrote, with irony, that "Salam Fayyad is Israel's public enemy number one" because he undermines arguments that all Palestinian leaders are radical or corrupt. You may say Fayyad is blowing smoke, and a peaceful Palestinian state is a pipe dream, but he sounds uncannily like the founder of Zionism, Theodore Herzl, who insisted: "If you will it, it is no dream."

E-mail Trudy Rubin at