A Technocrat Steadily Gains Influence in West Bank, but Questions Remain

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 13, 2009

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is not a fighter by trade, but when control of the Gaza Strip fell to the Islamist Hamas movement two years ago, he sensed the need to learn fast.

A former International Monetary Fund economist who was then the Palestinian Authority's finance minister, he was promoted to head the government at a time when he and others feared the West Bank was close to collapse as well -- from a Hamas attack or a civil war.

"We were in a state of shock. Gaza had just gone down the tubes, and the West Bank was not that far behind," Fayyad said in a recent interview. "Everything that I now know about the situation suggests strongly that was exactly what was going to happen. The PA had absolutely no wherewithal to stand a challenge."

The decisions that grew out of those first tense days have put Fayyad at the center of U.S. and Israeli hopes that an emerging calm in the West Bank will endure, and of a debate that has riven Palestinian politics. His steadily increasing influence over Palestinian affairs also has raised a question central to the Obama administration's peace efforts: Can a political independent, who speaks openly of the need to protect Israelis from attacks, succeed in a rough and faction-driven Middle East?

More familiar with economic models than with military doctrine -- "I have no security background," he says -- Fayyad, 57, is trying to untangle the complications originating from the intifada that broke out in 2000. The uprising, which followed several years of halting Israeli-Palestinian cooperation under the Oslo peace accords in the 1990s, involved deadly suicide and other attacks against Israelis, a deepened Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and a reversal of steady economic growth in the territory.

In talks with Palestinian police and security forces in the days after Gaza's fall in 2007, Fayyad said, it was made clear that they would have to begin deploying in force, reorganize their command and work to establish security in the broadest sense -- from routine law enforcement in Palestinian cities to prevention of attacks against Israelis. That, he insisted at the time and in public comments since, was the only way to "safeguard our national effort."

"Anyone who violates this is an outlaw, regardless of their background," Fayyad said. "This is about building a state, and the state should have sole purview over arms and weapons. There is no statehood and armed militias at the same time. It is a contradiction."

That policy has earned enough Israeli trust to allow the gradual renewal of security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority even as Hamas retains control of Gaza, with an armed wing that has fired thousands of rockets into Israeli territory in recent years and fought a punishing three-week war with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in December and January. There is a lull in the violence, but Hamas makes no pretense: It wants Fayyad out of power, and it wants an end to the security arrangements evolving in the West Bank between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, which are backed by the United States and the European Union.

While Gaza remains under a strict embargo, with only basic necessities allowed in by Israel, Palestinian security forces in the West Bank have been provided new barracks courtesy of the United States, automatic weapons and ammunition and are due to receive 50 armored personnel carriers donated by the Russian government.

The improving security situation has prompted the Israeli government to lift West Bank checkpoints put in place during the intifada -- a key Palestinian demand and a measure that international groups have encouraged to bolster Palestinian moderates and improve the economy. Top IDF commanders said they are sensing a change in attitudes in the West Bank as well.

"The terrorists are not the heroes of the street anymore," said one top Israeli military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "They still don't love us, but there's a change."

Fayyad's security efforts have become a central issue in the lengthy and unsuccessful reconciliation talks between Hamas and the rival Fatah faction. Fatah is the party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who appointed Fayyad to his job.

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