By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 3, 2010; A07
Before Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad stepped on stage here Tuesday before a gathering of Israeli intellectuals and policymakers, he had already been likened to Israel's founder, David Ben-Gurion, vilified as the leader of a movement bent on undermining the peace process and dismissed as a technocrat without popular support.
But his presence here -- at a packed conference in the heart of Israel, in a town named after the founder of modern Zionism -- perhaps said as much as any comment about the role he has played as the Palestinians' chief go-between with Israel and the West.
"This is a case of two completely, diametrically opposed historical narratives," Fayyad said in a 30-minute address that delved into the logic behind key Palestinian demands such as an end to Israel's occupation and settlement of the West Bank and the creation of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. "Israelis have a long history. Pain. Ambitions. Like you, we have our own history of pain and suffering, and we have our own ambition -- to live alongside you in peace and security."
Fayyad spoke at the Herzliya Conference, an annual gathering that has become a soup-to-nuts discussion of Israeli security and economic issues, as well as a platform for leaders to launch initiatives and trial balloons.
The substance of his speech was not as novel as the setting in which he delivered it: Not only did Fayyad venture from his office in the West Bank to this coastal Israeli town just north of Tel Aviv, he also shared the podium with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak -- marking a rare public encounter between top Israeli and Palestinian leaders at a time when the two sides are not formally meeting.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his cabinet members consort with Arab officials in Egypt and Jordan, and one official recently ventured to a conference in the United Arab Emirates. But at the highest levels, the two neighbors talk only sporadically, a reflection of the Obama administration's failed efforts to restart formal peace negotiations. The administration's early optimism has been reduced to proposals for low-level "proximity talks," an idea that a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel C. Kurtzer, has said would "turn the clock back" as if 20 years of discussions had not happened.
In that sour environment, with each side blaming the other for the paralysis, Fayyad's effort to keep Palestinian self-governance in the West Bank on track continues to command Israeli respect and keeps U.S. and European funds flowing in. In an earlier address to the conference, Israeli President Shimon Peres drew the Ben-Gurion comparison, calling Fayyad a state-builder. Others -- even those pessimistic about a peace agreement -- agreed.
"The good news: For the first time ever, the Palestinians have someone willing to think constructively and build their society. Bad news: He is not representative," said Dan Schueftan, director of the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa.
Fayyad is among the few Palestinians who get invited to events such as the Herzliya Conference and are willing to travel to Israel to attend. Conference organizers said it is an opportunity to speak directly across the divide.
"I think Fayyad wanted to speak to the Israeli public, and this is the best place," said Daniel Rothschild, a major general in the Israeli reserves and chairman of the conference.
The dual addresses offered contrasts: Barak spoke in Hebrew, Fayyad in English; Barak focused on regional security threats, Fayyad on the need for a "political horizon" for Palestinian statehood.
But there was a common thread, too, with each acknowledging an international consensus on the idea of two nations. Barak said that Israel risks becoming "an apartheid state par excellence" if it does not negotiate the terms of Palestinian statehood soon, and Fayyad said the work being done in the West Bank on governance needs to be matched by political progress.
"We have taken the responsibility of getting ready for statehood," Fayyad said. "We need to see that the occupation is indeed on its way to being rolled back."