Interview: How Salam Fayyad Plans to Save the Palestinian Dream

Article excerpt

Palestinian elections are scheduled to be held in less than three months, but the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Salam Fayyad, isn't concerned about running for office.

Rather, he's set his sights on a longer-term platform: establishing a Palestinian state by 2011 - a goal he outlined recently in a clear, well-organized booklet titled "Palestine: Ending the Occupation, Establishing the State."

"All I'm campaigning for is the two-year statehood program," said Dr. Fayyad in an interview Sunday. "The idea is unabashedly that two years down the road, we will have something that will look like a Palestinian state."

His office, sleek and ultramodern, seems to capture something of the man who is trying to save the Palestinian dream from collapse. And unlike workspace of most Palestinian politicians, the dominant photo is not a portrait of PA President Mahmoud Abbas or legendary Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat - but rather, a grand, old olive tree. It seems fitting that this, the Palestinian symbol of connection to the land, is what Fayyad sees when he looks up from his desk.

His two-year plan that many would deem unreachable seems to be a riff on the famous quote from the 1989 baseball movie "Field of Dreams": "If you build it, they will come."

"If we don't build it, who will?" asks Fayyad, enthusiastically. "We want to build an infrastructure that will aid in ending the occupation. I view this as a mission, not an occupation," he says. "You know, the other kind of occupation," he smiles, showing off his fluid command of English, honed as a PhD student in economics at the University of Texas.

Fayyad optimistic; Israelis skeptical

A former senior official at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Fayyad came onto the Palestinian political scene, somewhat reluctantly, by agreeing to become Yasser Arafat's finance minister in 2002. At the time, the Palestinian Authority was mid- intifada and mired in corruption. Fayyad's international credibility and economic expertise helped pull the PA back from the brink.

Now, he wants the PA to focus on the nuts and bolts of state- building, from schools and sewage to building new cities and affordable housing in the West Bank.

His sweeping plan, laid out in a succinct 50 pages, has become Fayyad's calling card, and is full of objectives that seem as optimistic and positive as Fayyad himself. But the plan is already raising eyebrows in Israel, drawing criticism for its call to unilateral action in disputed territory. For example, the plan calls for Palestinian building in "Area C" - a West Bank area populated by Palestinians but designated as being under Israel's security control by the Oslo Accords.

Fayyad makes no apologies for that. If Israel can build on the land over which it is supposed to be negotiating, so can Palestinians, he says.

"They say it's unilateral, to which I say, 'yes.' This is something I confess to. It's effective unilateralism," says Fayyad. "There is another brand of unilateralism exercised by Israel, which is called settlement building. What I have here is an agenda of creating positive facts on the ground."

The "facts on the ground" approach is the same one, interestingly, that Israel used to build settlements in the first place. But Israel still has the power to knock down buildings erected without its permission. "Then we'll just build them again," says Fayyad, who has an can-do attitude when he talks about his plan that seems out-of-step with the skepticism that pervades most Palestinian politics.

Still, he's resigned out of frustration several times in the past, and each time, President Abbas refused to accept his resignation. Asked where the optimism comes from, he shrugs. …