Salam Fayyad has resigned as prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. Losing practically the only Palestinian leader committed to building civil society and limiting corruption is a blow for those hoping for a two-state solution or even an improved quality of life for Palestinians.
Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told me in a phone interview Sunday, “This is undeniably a defeat for the administration and undeniably a defeat for the Palestinian cause.”
According to Schanzer, Secretary of State John F. Kerry was aware of the brewing crisis since February, but neither his recent efforts to restart the peace process nor the president’s supportive words for Fayyad during his recent trip were sufficient to prevent Fayyad’s ouster. So, Schanzer concludes, “It is hard not to see this as an early defeat for Kerry.” Although, he said, this also is clearly seen as a “blowback to the Obama administration policies.”
Quite simply, the United States has lost influence in the region since we abandoned Iraq entirely, pulled up stakes prematurely in Afghanistan, allowed Bashar al-Assad to pursue his bloody civil war in Syria and failed to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program through diplomacy and sanctions. It is the appearance of ineptitude and willingness to resign ourselves to defeat that also leaves us without sway over players like Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Schanzer observes, “We aren’t projecting the same power in the region.” Indeed it is easy to forget that the U.S. triumph in the Cold War was in large part responsible for our success in beginning the Oslo process. Conversely, as power drains away we lose the ability to bend events our way in the Middle East.
It is also clear that Abbas, four years past the time elections were to be held, has an agenda far different than ours. He’s in league now with Hamas. He has snubbed Obama twice by going to the United Nations for a declaration of statehood and now he’s pushed out the man responsible for internal reform. The question now is whether there will be any commitment to reform post-Fayyad or whether we enter a period indistinguishable from pre-Oslo conditions and the Yasser Arafat era more generally.
The U.S. Congress is likely to react sharply to Fayyad’s resignation and may move to cut off or delay further aid. Schanzer doesn’t recommend cutting off aid to the Palestinian Authority, arguing that in delaying the last installment of $500 million in aid, “The only person we hurt was Fayyad.” But he and other observers are at a loss to see how we can assert leverage.
Plainly what is absent on the Palestinian side is transparency, reform, democratic elections and political competition. Our goal, says Schanzer, should be to open up “political space” with an eye toward keeping the Palestinians on the road to reform. That would entail allowing political debate and criticism of Abbas. How we do that however is far from clear. And as bad as Abbas is, the possibility that he will step down or be felled by age is equally troubling. Because there is no designated successor, Hamas-affiliated characters could well step into a power vacuum. And if we pushed for elections on the West Bank, could Abbas resist Hamas’s demands to be included? Unlikely.
Well, here we have the complete collapse of U.S. power, the Oslo process and Palestinian reform. Obama’s claim to be the new harbinger of “smart diplomacy” now can be seen as no more than the braggadocio of an incompetent administration.