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To achieve peace, a Palestinian channels David Ben-Gurion
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To achieve peace, a Palestinian channels David Ben-Gurion

What does former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have in common with Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion? Fayyad, like Ben-Gurion before him, embraces the principle of self-empowerment, believing it to be the key to freedom and sovereignty for his people. 

Ben-Gurion wrote in a seminal work, “Mema’amad Le’am,” translated as “From Class to Nation,” that “A homeland is not given as a gift and is not acquired by means of political rights and contracts. It is not purchased with gold and is not conquered by force but is built with sweat.” 

Fayyad, who served as prime minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA) from 2007 until 2013, is spending the academic year at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He spoke at a public forum I attended in November at Princeton. In his remarks he said, “Palestinians are right and reasonable in having expectations of Israel and the international community. It is my view, however, that unless we assume full agency in our own liberation by embarking on a serious agenda of self-empowerment, it is unlikely that we will be able to have much positive influence on outcomes that pertain to our fate.”

Fayyad told the attendees that in 2009 the Palestinian government adopted a platform that targeted international recognition of Palestinian readiness for statehood within a two-year period. The criteria entailed meeting certain socioeconomic indicators and strengthening the PA’s institutional capabilities for good and improving governance. This platform, Fayyad explained, was designed to serve as the basis of an “overarching vision of a Palestinian state that was to embody the universally shared progressive values of equality, democratic and accountable government, openness, inclusiveness, and tolerance.” In fact, a year-and-a-half into the platform’s implementation, Fayyad observed, “The PA won international recognition of its readiness for statehood,” which came in the form of endorsement by key donors, the UN, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. 

As I listened to Fayyad, I experienced an overwhelming sense of sadness at the loss of a golden opportunity. Why didn’t we — meaning Israel, the United States, and the international community — do more to invest in the state-building efforts of such a Palestinian leader? Why did Israel and the U.S. focus almost exclusively on trying to reach an elusive peace agreement with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, whose commitment to achieving a reasonable compromise on final status issues is suspect at best? Why, after adoption of the impressive 2009 platform, was Fayyad not invited even once to the White House?  

Palestinians today are facing a crisis of leadership. Roger Cohen called for Abbas to leave office in The New York Times on Jan. 27, writing, “His government is now widely seen as a corrupt gerontocracy. It is inept, remote, self-serving and ever more authoritarian. Elected to a four-year term in January 2005, he’s entering the 14th year of a largely unaccountable presidency.” 

Despite the ever-increasing pessimism about the possibility of Israeli-Palestinian peace, Fayyad has not lost hope. An avowed supporter of the two-state solution, he insisted, “I am confident that it is possible to formulate a Palestinian program that, while is inspired by the need to fulfill our national aspirations, can also be responsive and sensitive to the needs of all of our neighbors, including Israel.”  

The Palestinian people’s quest for freedom, Fayyad said at the forum, “must be inspired by an overarching vision of a democratic state governed by the rule of law, guided by the universally shared progressive values of equality, liberty, and justice, with full and nondiscriminatory constitutional protection of the unabridged individual and collective rights and privileges of citizenship.” Echoes of Israel’s own Declaration of Independence. 

Fayyad reflected on four “channels of influence” which, he said, contributed to the ultimate failure of his 2009 platform and must still be addressed. 

First, a comprehensive Palestinian state-building initiative, he stressed, must not only be adopted by the Palestinian cabinet, but it also needs to be endorsed by other key components of the national political system who would view it as a “fully integrated political vision,” he said.    

Fayyad touched on the 2012 Palestinian diplomatic initiative that initially was designed to give Palestine full United Nations membership through action by the UN Security Council. “Instead of serving as a springboard for genuine freedom and dignity for the Palestinian people,” he lamented, “the platform merely ended up providing a basis for getting Palestine non-member observer status at the UN.”

Second, the failure to resolve the political separation between the West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza has imparted “a sense of futility to diplomatic efforts, but, also, equally to the national effort of getting ready for statehood.” 

He called for a unified Palestinian leadership to adopt “a time-bound commitment to non-violence, tasking the PLO with communicating that commitment to Israel and the international community, while working on a UN Security Council resolution setting a date for ending the occupation by the end of the term of that commitment.”

Third, while Israel publicly expressed enthusiasm about his 2009 platform, Fayyad said “the occupying power actually did very little to provide an enabling environment in a political sense.” Moreover, Israel’s continued settlement activity, its siege of Gaza, and military raids into Palestinian cities undermined confidence in a two-state solution and damaged the political standing of the PA. Israeli policies, he said, need to reflect a sincere desire to see a Palestinian state arise one day in the West Bank and Gaza. 

The fourth and final channel was that the PA’s donor community failed to deliver adequate economic aid during the critical phase of the platform’s implementation. “The PA’s financial situation became completely untenable,” Fayyad said, “when Israel suspended the transfer of Palestinian revenues it collects on behalf of the PA in retaliation for Palestinian pursuit of an upgrade of Palestine’s UN status.”

I recognize that not everyone will agree that some or all of these “channels of influence” need to be addressed in the ways Fayyad outlined, and given today’s soured Israeli-Palestinian relations, it would be unrealistic to immediately relaunch the kind of full-scale, state-building enterprise Fayyad embarked on when he was prime minister. 

But is it better to chase an “ultimate deal” that virtually all serious observers believe is out of reach for the foreseeable future or to, at least incrementally, build on Fayyad’s vision of responsible Palestinian self-empowerment so as to gradually nurture into existence a state next to Israel with the capacity to be a good neighbor?

In my opinion, it is better to move slowly in the right direction than to fail, yet again, to resolve the seemingly intractable permanent status issues. That would only have the effect of deepening the pessimism on both sides. 

We are approaching the 25th anniversary of the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords, which at the time we had hoped would usher in a new era in Israel-Palestinian relations. We are still waiting, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late.

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