The End of Fayyadism

The days of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad being hailed as the savior of Palestinian politics are over. Why is the White House staying silent as President Mahmoud Abbas sabotages his efforts?

The "Arab Spring" may be pushing the Middle East toward transparency and more representative government, but the Palestinian Authority is bucking the trend. Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, perhaps the only Palestinian leader who earnestly sought to usher in an era of good governance, is now under siege from political rivals. But instead of providing him the support he needs to weather the storm, Washington has chosen to stand on the sidelines.

"Fayyadism" was once hailed in Washington's corridors of power -- and by the New York Times's Tom Friedman -- as a refreshing alternative to the governing philosophy of other Middle Eastern regimes. As Friedman wrote in 2009, "Fayyadism is based on the simple but all-too-rare notion that an Arab leader's legitimacy should be based not on slogans or rejectionism or personality cults or security services, but on delivering transparent, accountable administration and services."

President Mahmoud Abbas, however, has other ideas for the Palestinian Authority. In recent years, he has methodically marginalized Fayyad and used cronyism to consolidate his personal power.

Abbas's latest step has been to orchestrate a series of trials against the prime minister's top officials. On Nov. 29, the Palestinian prosecutor-general charged Economy Minister Hassan Abu Libdeh with corruption, paving the way for him to stand trial this month. The charges -- breach of trust, fraud, insider trading, and embezzlement of public funds -- date back to Abu Libdeh's tenure as director of the Palestinian Capital Market Authority in 2008. Earlier this year, the newly formed Palestinian Anti-Corruption Commission also charged Agriculture Minister Ismail Daiq with corruption. Daiq is still awaiting trial.

In the Palestinian Authority, corruption probes aren't launched unless the president wants them launched. In this case, Abbas has engineered these latest scandals to discredit Fayyad and cast doubt on the prime minister's ability to deliver on his celebrated mandate of countering corruption. After all, the corruption goes to the highest levels of the Palestinian Authority, and the officials in question were appointed by Fayyad himself.

While the merits of these cases are yet to be determined, they are not designed to rid Palestine of corruption. Rather, by ousting ministers and hobbling Fayyad, Abbas creates an opportunity to replace them with figures more to his liking.

Abbas makes the major decisions impacting Palestinians out of his sprawling Muqata compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Fayyad, meanwhile, works with a skeleton crew in a modest office nearby. According to officials who work with them, the two figureheads of the Palestinians are barely on speaking terms. Fayyad has become a glorified accountant, leveraging his strong relationship with international donors to collect checks that ensure his government can continue to pay salaries -- while Abbas pursues a provocative foreign policy that endangers those sources of funding.

Early this year, when Abbas began openly angling for international recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations -- a finger in Washington's eye -- Fayyad opposed him. Although Fayyad's efforts were part of the original plan in 2009, as it became clear that the unilateral approach was infuriating Washington and prompting Congress to mull a cutoff in aid, he openly questioned the success of the endeavor. As he recently remarked, "This is not the state we are looking for."

In November, when Abbas entered into negotiations to form a unity government with the terrorist group Hamas -- a deal that could prompt a full cut in U.S. funding -- Fayyad stood ready to resign. And while he claimed that he was prepared to step aside in the name of "national unity," Fayyad has since gone on record as refusing to serve the future Hamas-Fatah coalition government in any capacity.

Now that both Abbas-led ventures have been tabled for the time being, the president has manufactured these new corruption probes against members of the Fayyad cabinet.

This is not to say that a corruption probe is ill-advised. One should be launched -- but it should focus on Abbas and his immediate family members, who have reportedly grown rich from no-bid contracts. Most notable, perhaps, was the 2010 Wataniya cell phone tender that reportedly yielded fruit for the president's sons, Yasser and Tarek. A future probe should also focus on the members of Abbas's inner circle and the centralized system that grants them position, money, and power.

Unfortunately, the State Department and the White House are loath to take these steps. President Barack Obama's administration is not blind to corruption in Ramallah and the erosion of Fayyad's power, but it rightly fears that weakening Abbas -- let alone toppling him -- will lead to a power vacuum from which only Hamas will benefit.

After all, it was Hamas that claimed a resounding victory in the 2006 legislative elections, which were undisputedly free and fair, prompting Washington to throw its full backing behind Abbas. He has since become an unlikely centerpiece of U.S. policy and a counterweight to the Islamist group that also happens to be an Iranian proxy. In the absence of a viable alternative, the Palestinian leader has also won a remarkably free hand in his domestic and international battles.

Abbas knows that Washington values his ability to fend off Hamas more than it does Fayyad's ability to govern. This explains why he feels unencumbered to test Washington's patience, both when it comes to political reform in Ramallah and the statehood bid at the United Nations. It also explains why Washington has stood by silently as Fayyad has struggled in vain to maintain his dwindling authority.

To be sure, Washington still pays lip service to the potential of Fayyad's reform agenda, but the White House knows the prime minister's days are numbered. According to several of Fayyad's allies, American diplomats have reportedly written him off.

The end of Fayyadism translates into another expensive taxpayer investment gone wrong in the Middle East. It means the end of an era that offered hope for political reform for the Palestinians. With little hope for change, it also marks the beginning of a new and dangerous period in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Rick Gershon/Getty Images


A New Home for Hamas?

Could the hard-line Palestinian group abandon Damascus for Qatar -- and in so doing lay a foundation for a détente with Israel?

The shifting allegiances in this tumultuous era of Arab politics have come to resemble a game of musical chairs. According to an unnamed Hamas official quoted in the Wall Street Journal, the hard-line Palestinian group is seeking to move its political headquarters from Damascus as early as this week. Its reliance on the tottering regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria has left it significantly weakened and in search of a new base for political operations, and Egypt and Qatar have both materialized as possible new bases, according to the official. In the case of the Qatari capital of Doha, that may not necessarily be a bad thing.

It's still unclear if Hamas will actually make the move. Speaking to the Lebanese paper Al-Akhbar, another Hamas official was quick to dismiss the Wall Street Journal story, claiming that only administrative staff will leave Damascus while the top political figures will stay. But whatever Hamas's current plans, it's clear that Assad's violent crackdown -- and the negative reaction from Arab powers -- have pressured the group into exploring its options.

The fall of traditional regional power brokers like former Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak and the likely fall of Assad have helped to burnish Qatar's diplomatic and strategic influence. Qatar took the lead in persuading the Arab League to impose sanctions on the Assad regime, and was also the first Arab country to back international intervention in Libya -- even sending its own special forces to support the anti-Qaddafi rebels.

For the countries that could be potential new bases, Hamas's weakness presents an opportunity to turn the group away from extremism, isolate it from Iranian influence, and potentially lay the groundwork for renewed negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

The Wall Street Journal article contended that Hamas is being encouraged to make a hurried exit out of Syria by Qatar and Turkey. According to the Hamas official quoted in that piece, the two countries have castigated the group for its continued relationship with the murderous Assad regime, allegedly telling Hamas, in the words of the official, "Have you no shame? It's enough. You have to get out." On the verge of becoming embroiled in a Syrian civil war, Hamas is "looking to re-establish themselves somewhere with stability" according to one Palestinian official quoted in the Times of London last week, but also where it will be "protected, diplomatically and militarily, from Israel."

It is unlikely that Hamas' top leadership will move its headquarters to Gaza, as the group would be vulnerable to attacks by Israel. Jordan is another possibility, but the Hashemite kingdom and Hamas don't have a smooth relationship -- Hamas officials were expelled from the country in 1999 for actions deemed harmful to the state. Fear of becoming a flashpoint for regional conflict could still convince King Abdullah to avoid strengthening ties with Hamas. There's always Khartoum, but relocating to distant Sudan would look like an act of desperation for Hamas, which has always prided itself for exercising influence at the center of the Arab world.

Hamas' position is unenviable. On the one hand, it faces pressure from Iran, another patron, which has allegedly threatened to withdraw funding should the group leave Damascus -- a threat the Islamic Republic also reportedly followed through on briefly this year when Hamas refused to publicly support Assad. On the other hand, the longer Hamas remains in Damascus and implicitly stands by Assad, the more legitimacy it will lose among Palestinians living in Syria and broadly among Sunnis opposing the regime. It will also find itself working against its ideological affiliates in the Muslim Brotherhood -- an important force in the Syrian opposition movement.

As we argued in our July 2011 report on Fatah-Hamas unity, Hamas's increasingly untenable position toward the Arab revolt was what induced politburo chief Khaled Mashaal to discuss reconciliation and a unity government back in May with his Palestinian political rival, Fatah -- an arrangement the group had previously rejected when offered by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2010. The fragility of its position in Syria may have also inspired Hamas to arrange the prisoner swap that exchanged Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners -- a move designed to secure much-needed popular kudos and international credibility. Hamas is trying, in its own way, to look like a group that other countries can do business with.

But do those countries have any interest in playing host to Hamas -- a movement that has proven to be one of the chief obstacles to regional peace and stability? One could assume that splitting Hamas' political operations between Doha and Cairo could provide a check on the group's behavior. At the same time, there's a risk that it could act more liberally in Qatar -- in order to acquire legitimacy -- while at the same time developing a more radical agenda in Egypt, especially with its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, set to dominate the Egyptian Parliament.

For its part, Qatar may view the prospect of hosting Hamas as an opportunity to increase its diplomatic clout and leverage in the region, as it has done since the start of the Arab Spring. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir, has long played a behind the scenes role in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. He previously offered to establish a bilateral committee with the United States to advance Arab-Israeli peace, to mediate internal Palestinian disputes, and has provided $50 million in financial support to the then Hamas-led Palestinian Authority in 2006.

Achieving peace in the region has been Qatar's stated policy goal since 1994, when Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamid bin Jassim al-Thani said in a Washington event that the country was willing to talk to all parties in the conflict, including Israel. Qatar pursued low-level diplomatic relations with Israel and even hosted an Israeli trade mission in Doha. However, the relationship broke off in December 2008, after Israel launched its offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Hamas, on the other hand, currently enjoys Qatar's hospitality: Mashaal, for example, currently owns a house in Doha.

The Qataris have previously expressed interest in weaning Hamas away from its extremist politics and Iranian influence. In one WikiLeaks revelation that documented a meeting with Sen. John Kerry in Feb. 2010, Sheikh Hamad said that he could help move Hamas because Qatar doesn't "play in their internal politics" nor share its ideology. Like its neighbor, Saudi Arabia, Qatar also has a compelling interest in containing Iran's hegemonic ambitions, which it previously believed could be achieved through Assad's influence on Hamas. In that same meeting with Kerry, the emir conveyed his belief that Assad could "help Arab extremists make tough choices."

With Qatar now leading the charge against Assad, it is no doubt looking for other methods to isolate Iran by moderating Hamas. Offering Hamas political refuge in Doha has the potential to diminish the threat the group poses to regional peace, but the offer should only be made if Hamas accepts the Quartet Principles, which including recognizing Israel's right to exist, laying down arms, and committing to a negotiated settlement. Qatar should give Hamas leaders a one- to two-year deadline in which to purge their organisation of its most extreme elements, adjust its institutional priorities, and accept the need for a negotiated settlement with Israel. If not, Hamas should be turned out into the cold.

If Qatar can deliver on this ambitious scheme, the Quartet powers should in turn reward the country with an official position in any future Arab-Israeli negotiations, which have been stalled since March 2011. At the same time, any invitation to join this elite diplomatic club should entail responsible behavior from the Qataris, not the type seen in Libya, where -- though lauded for its efforts -- it allegedly provided money and weapons to Islamist factions without prior approval from the ruling National Transitional Council.

All this, of course, is a long shot. As Hamas' raison d'être has been the destruction of Israel, it would have to be in a significantly weak position in order to make such significant concessions. Yet as the need for a new base becomes increasingly apparent, political pragmatists such as Mashaal may conclude that they have no other option. That is, of course, provided that their new patron makes this a condition of their hospitality.

It may well be the case the Hamas is incapable of moderation. Then again, many also thought that the Palestine Liberation Organization could never accept the state of Israel. In any event, if Hamas does not moderate, this exercise may accomplish something even more helpful than bringing Hamas into the political fold: It may precipitate its demise by unleashing internal war between the pragmatic and extremist elements within the group. With traditional power brokers either out of the game or sitting on the sidelines, the United States and Europe may find that it's not such a bad idea to throw their weight behind the Qataris.