President Fayyad could change the PA landscape

Ever since he became Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority in 2007, Salam Fayyad's popularity - both among Palestinians and with Western governments - has been built on one crucial factor. In an area where corruption had been endemic, and trustworthiness a seemingly mythical concept, Fayyad is incorruptible. He makes no empty promises. And he delivers concrete changes.

But to judge from an interview he gave to Haaretz in December, he may already have started to behave like a normal politician. "I don't intend to run for the presidency or anything else for that matter," Fayyad said.

His was a classic politician's denial. Because it may be that, in a few months, we have to look back and stress that word, "intend".

There is, as yet, no firm evidence that he will run for president when Mahmoud Abbas steps down (the incumbent has repeatedly said he will not stand again). But there is every reason to believe it will happen. Talk to friends and colleagues of Fayyad and you hear the same thing: he is planning to stand.

The elections are due in May, although the history of such time-tables is that they are entirely notional. If and when they do happen, however, they could be the most important moment in the peace process since… well, the last one.

No one has yet emerged as the next Fatah candidate. Figures from the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research show a problem for the party. The most popular successor candidate to Abbas is Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences for murder. He is favoured by 54 per cent of Fatah supporters. Other names trail behind, with only Saeb Erikat, the lead Palestinian negotiator, recording any real support – and that at just seven per cent.

That is just for the Fatah nomination, however. The real story of these polls is what lies behind Hamas' insistence that, as the price of any unity deal with Fatah, Fayyad be removed as PM. He has, in short, been too successful.

That is why Fayyad is streets ahead in the polls of any potential candidate from Fatah or Hamas.

Even just to remain as head of a unity government he is supported by 57 per cent of Palestinians. And that includes 20 per cent of Hamas supporters.

No other figure comes close to Fayyad in polling. He is respected, he is trusted, and he is popular.

His problem has always been that he is, essentially, an empowered bureaucrat. He has no mandate, no real party, no power-base and no authority, other than that handed to him by Abbas.

His policy (known as Fayyadism) of ignoring grand peace deals and declarations of statehood and focusing on establishing the real instruments of statehood - the rule of law, property rights and a reliable infrastructure - has certainly brought huge improvements in the West Bank. Were he to disappear from government, the rapidity of those improvements could easily be mirrored by a rapid collapse, without Fayyad's drive from the centre even to maintain the status quo, let alone any further progress.

Fayyad has attempted to build a constituency for peace, whose economic interest is tied to this solid progress. But, if that collapses, Hamas could then be pushing at an open door.

There is one way for Fayyad to change all this. That is to gain a mandate, build a power-base and earn authority directly from the people - through election as president.

It would also make an important statement to the world. Across the region, every election is being won by the Islamists. In Egypt, the alliance of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafist Al-Nour Party won over 70 per cent of the votes. Islamists have won in Tunisia, Morocco and Kuwait and are likely to win in Algeria and Libya. What a signal for hope it would send if the Palestinian Authority voted in Fayyad as president.

As president, he would test the received wisdom that everyone knows what a negotiated settlement would look like, but no one knows how to get there.

A former senior US diplomat explained to me that the current problem is that there is a total breakdown of trust between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas. The Israelis certainly trust Mr Fayyad.

"Put Fayyad and Netanyahu in a room together and a deal would be done", I was told.

That may be over optimistic. But it would be good to find out.

Stephen Pollard is the editor of the JC

Last updated: 10:37am, February 20 2012