Rami Khouri
The Daily Star
October 14, 2008 - 8:00pm

Some of history's most memorable personalities often are un-flamboyant, low-key people who find themselves thrust into the limelight due to the circumstances of their time and place. Such people sometimes rise to the challenge thrust upon them, and achieve noteworthy deeds. They usually do so by summoning powers of persistence and clarity of focus, while always articulating a sense of what is right for their wider society.

I believe that one such person is Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who is doing some remarkable things despite having one of the most difficult jobs in the world. He was appointed in difficult and contentious circumstances in July last year after the Palestinian government split into two parts in Gaza and the West Bank, controlled by Hamas and Fateh, respectively. He presides over a contested government that has control only over part of its territory (the West Bank), and must endure the constant threats and pressures of both direct and indirect Israeli occupation and control of all of the areas that comprise the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Fayyad has been able largely to shield himself from the ugly split and often violent confrontations that define Palestinian national politics today, and instead focus on trying to make everyday life for ordinary Palestinians a little more bearable.

He made his mark when he was finance minister after 2002, and quickly restructured the entire public finances sector. Not only did he vastly reduce the corruption and waste that had marred the Palestinian governance system since the PA was established after the Oslo Accords in 1993. He also established a transparent public finance system that remains a leader in the entire Arab world, with real-time budget positions posted on a website every month.

Yet the most remarkable thing about Fayyad, I sense, is not his achievements in financial sector reform, but rather his spirit of optimism and certitude in the face of so much stress and gloom in Palestinian society. He spoke last weekend in the United States about how Palestinians understandably have experienced erosion in self-esteem and self-assuredness, prompted by decades of Israeli occupation and oppression. This has often led to reactions of defeatism and belligerence among the public, he said, which offer only dead ends.

The way to overcome the obstacles to achieving Palestinian national goals, in his view, was "to rid ourselves of what four decades of Israeli occupation have precipitated by way of fear, skepticism, cynicism, self-doubt, and loss of self-esteem."

When I met him for a chat earlier this week, he spoke again of these same themes that he raised in his public talk. He noted that Palestinians seek a full and warm peace with Israel, but will not accept a peace at any price. People will subject any agreement negotiated with Israel to a test of its inherent fairness, he said.

He also made a call to the international community to go beyond only supporting the Palestinians financially, and to hold Israel to its word when it says it wants to establish an independent, viable Palestinian state. The world mostly wags its finger at Israel when more Jewish settlements are built in occupied Palestinian land, and this clearly is not enough.

Instead, Fayyad noted, it is high time to redress the balance between, on the one hand, what international law and justice prescribe, and, on the other, what is achievable in practical terms on the basis of the relative strengths of the parties. The imbalance in power and control has meant that Palestinians have seen their position erode with every round of diplomacy that did not achieve an agreement.

Fayyad is a practical man, an economist by training, and a technocrat by mentality. He speaks of his job as assisting his people "to live just a little bit better than the day before, and to stay on their land for another day ... and another," adding that this will be achieved through constructive, non-violent means that honor the noble Palestinian cause.

In many ways, Salam Fayyad represents a new style of Palestinian leader who shuns the flamboyance of nationalistic political rhetoric for the practicalities of the citizen's need to achieve several crucial goals: to survive another day under occupation and often under siege by Israel, to remain on the land, to look forward to better days ahead, to resist and fight non-violently so that the Palestinian national struggle retains its integrity, and, most of all, to remain proud.

"Price, dignity, self-respect, and resilience" are words that he uses frequently these days in describing the key attributes of Palestinian daily life and the goals of his government. His successes in the field of financial sector reform seem to have sparked in this quiet, humble man a new sense of leadership anchored in realism across a wider spectrum of sectors, conditions and challenges.


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