Edmund Sanders
The Los Angeles Times
January 21, 2011 - 1:00am

No one seems to know what to make of him. Israelis puzzle over the cleanshaven technocrat who denounces violence. Palestinians see an outsider who never cut his teeth on the tear-gas-choked streets of intifadas.

Now, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad hopes to confound expectations even further, pursuing what some see as a quixotic goal of laying the groundwork for an independent country by August.

No matter that peace talks are stalled. If Palestinians build the trappings of a state, he believes, a real state will follow.

"Part of getting where we must go comes from transforming this from abstract concept to the realm of the possible," he said in an interview in his Ramallah office. "A key point of strength is to impart a sense of inevitability."

Over the last year, the pragmatic, suit-wearing former World Bank economist has worked hard to burnish his image with skeptical Palestinians — harvesting olive trees with farmers, attending protests against Israel's separation barrier and organizing boycotts of products made by Jewish settlements in the West Bank. His government's approval rating rose from 34% in 2008 to 43% last month, according to one poll.

During a visit to Jericho in the fall, Fayyad could barely hide his delight when children mobbed him like a returning war hero. In a display of adoration he rarely sees, they even serenaded him with a popular Palestinian chant about sacrificing their "blood and soul."

Israelis too have taken notice of Fayyad, and they seem unsure of how to confront this new-styled Palestinian leader who's a darling of the international community and is demonstrating increasingly sharp political instincts.

In a public relations coup in November, Fayyad embarrassed Israeli officials by announcing that the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority had spent $5 million renovating neglected schools and roads in East Jerusalem, an Arab-dominated area that is under Israeli control but where Palestinians hope to one day build their capital.

"He will kill us with his moderation," quipped Yossi Sarid, newspaper columnist for Haaretz and a former lawmaker, who only half-jokingly labeled Fayyad as Israel's "Public Enemy No. 1" because he is quietly defying the usual Israeli characterization of Palestinians as extremist and violent.

Israeli President Shimon Peres calls Fayyad the "Palestinians' first Ben-Gurionist," referring to Israel's founding father.

Fayyad, 58, denies political ambitions, but many think he's angling to take over one day as president; the current Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is 75 and has frequently threatened to quit over the faltering peace talks.

Although Fayyad is a long shot because he is not a member of the powerful Fatah party, the list of possible presidential successors is short, particularly with the recent sidelining of Palestinian strongman Mohammed Dahlan, who apparently angered Abbas by appearing too eager to take over the top job.

"Fayyad is going to become a serious political player because he is the only one who can play this game," Palestinian political analyst Hani Masri said. "Fatah does not have a person to replace Abbas when the time comes for Abbas to leave. Their only option would be Fayyad."

At the same time, Masri said, Fayyad, who has vowed to remain a political independent, may have to fight for the post.

"There are people in Fatah who hate Fayyad and speak against him," Masri said. Some in Fatah complain that Fayyad's pacifism will never work against Israelis and his state-building only "beautifies" the occupation.

Fayyad insists that he has no political aspirations beyond implementing his two-year plan to whip Palestinian institutions into shape so they will be ready for statehood by this summer.

"It's a campaign for the statehood vision, not a political campaign for office," he said. "Why would anyone who is so preoccupied with this kind of mission have other aspirations? It's a full-time job."

He dismissed speculation among Israelis that his secret aim is to unilaterally declare statehood, and break away from Israel, rather than reach an agreement over borders and territory. Israelis have been alarmed in recent weeks by Palestinians' success in winning formal diplomatic recognition as a state from several South American nations, including Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador and Bolivia.

Fayyad says that a fully functioning state can arise only from the political process and that his goal is simply to be ready once an agreement is reached.

He said he is surprised that his approach seems to "confound" Israelis, since he is largely borrowing from their playbook.

"Israelis say they want peace and a two-state solution," he said. "We're doing it. There is no hidden plan.... I'm sure Israelis can relate to this and to their own experience. It worked for them. Why not for us?"

Since taking over as prime minister in 2007, Fayyad has won praise for overhauling the Finance Ministry and rooting out the corruption that plagued the Palestinian Authority under the late Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat. Fayyad's government has also created a professional police force that restored security to several West Bank cities and it is embarking on hundreds of civic projects, from a new cellphone provider to master-planned cities outside Ramallah.

International donors, who provide more than half of the Palestinian Authority's budget, have let it be known that they want Fayyad to continue holding the purse strings.

"Fayyad's best job security is his support from the international community," said one European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The PA [Palestinian Authority] realizes that if they get rid of him, they might lose their international funding."

That partly explains why Fayyad has survived numerous attempts by Fatah critics to topple him or wrest control of the Finance Ministry.

But a senior Israeli intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, warned that Fayyad's position remains tenuous and largely reliant on his alliance with Abbas.

"If [Abbas] retires, it might happen that Fayyad is not there," the official said. "He has aspirations, but his problem is he's not coming from the right party and doesn't have real support."

Fayyad dismissed the criticisms as "background noise" and expressed confidence that Palestinians are warming to his nonviolent alternative.

"This is about concepts and ideas," he said. "I'm a firm believer in the immense power of nonviolence."

On the streets, however, some don't see Fayyad as a maverick. In polls, he still lags behind other Palestinian leaders, including Abbas, jailed activist Marwan Barghouti and Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

"He's just like everybody else," said Rani Bakri, 32, a shop owner in East Jerusalem. Business in Bakri's glass-window shop remains sluggish. Teachers at the government school across the street went on strike for lack of salaries. "We hear about the things they are doing, but we don't see them."

Fayyad's political fortunes also face a major test this summer, when his state-readiness campaign is slated to be completed by Aug. 26.

He acknowledged that there is major unfinished business, including weak courts, a nonfunctioning parliament and the absence of elections because of the split between Fatah and Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip. All of that, including the reunification of Fatah and Hamas, needs to be completed before Palestinians will be ready for statehood, he said.

Some think Fayyad should start backing away from the August deadline and lowering expectations, because he might be blamed for failing to deliver statehood.

"He created a dream with his statehood plan and made people believe it, but this is not going to happen," Masri said.

Fayyad insisted that the work can be completed on time.

"I can't project anything but full confidence," he said. "Unless we believe it, how is it going to become a reality? Let the skeptics have second thoughts. I have no Plan B. No parachute."


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