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.