Cliff May

Ramallah, West Bank — It’s difficult not to like Salam Fayyad. The prime minister of the Palestinian Authority has an avuncular demeanor and old-fashioned professorial charm. He boasts a doctorate in economics from the University of Texas at Austin and remains loyal to the Longhorns. He speaks in charmingly accented, rapid-fire English. In a spacious conference room in the palatial government complex where he maintains his offices, he is generous with his time, answering questions from me and other members of a delegation of American national-security professionals on a wide range of issues.

One need not agree with everything Fayyad says to appreciate that he is the kind of Palestinian leader with whom Israeli leaders could make peace — if Israeli leaders could negotiate with him, and if he could deliver a majority of Palestinians willing to accept a compromise solution to the conflict. Fundamentally, here’s what that would mean: Palestinians would have to unambiguously recognize Israel’s right to exist within secure borders. In exchange, Israel would do everything possible to facilitate the development of a free and viable Palestinian state.

What are the chances that Fayyad can achieve that? Roughly zero to none.

Fayyad has few supporters in the West Bank — and even fewer in Hamas-controlled Gaza. He was not elected prime minister; he was appointed in 2007 by Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas who claimed the power to do so on the basis of “national emergency.”

As for Abbas, he was elected to his position in January 2005. His four-year term ended in 2009. New elections have been postponed indefinitely. Similarly, the Palestinian Legislative Council, which sits in Gaza, was elected to a four-year term in January 2006. The following year, Hamas staged a bloody coup against the P.A. in Gaza. New legislative elections also remain unscheduled.

American and European diplomats value Fayyad’s skills and trust his integrity. So long as he is prime minister, they feel better about pouring in aid — more per capita than to any country in Africa, Asia, or Latin America — that keeps the P.A. afloat. Israelis respect Fayyad, too. You do understand that all this makes him less popular — not more — with the broad Palestinian public?

Of course, popularity is not the only source — or even the primary source — of power in the Palestinian territories. But Fayyad does not command a militia. And, presumably because he is seen as a moderate, he receives no financial backing from such oil-rich Muslim countries as Iran and Qatar.


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.