Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak says that Palestinian prime Minister Salam Fayyad is like an American CEO—a man who gets things done. Fayyad, a former World Bank economist with a reputation for probity, first joined the Palestinian Authority as Finance minister, and was appointed prime minister after the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007. A future leader of a Palestinian state? He faces several hurdles: he has no popular base and is not a member of the ruling Fatah party. Last week NEWSWEEK's Lally Weymouth spoke with Fayyad in Ramallah. Excerpts:
Weymouth: You are popular with Israeli officials.
Fayyad: That's good. (Article continued below...)
Why did you join the Palestinian Authority?
I came here when the IMF [first] set up an office here in December 1995 … Particularly after Oslo, a lot of people began to come in as experts. I started to feel antsy about being in the Washington area and just sitting there on my deck on Sunday. When the time came for me to go back to Washington, I just didn't want to leave this place.
Did you think it was possible to do anything with Arafat in charge?
There is hardly anything I did here that was easy. Changing the way business is done in finance in the PA was not easy. You just didn't know where to begin. The elements of failure by far outweighed the elements of success.
Do you blame the Americans for pushing the election in which Hamas won?
No. From what I remember, everyone, myself included, pushed for elections to be inclusive.
How do you explain the result?
When you really think about what happened, it should not have come as a surprise. It is a problem of an incumbent. There was dissatisfaction with the way the PA had governed. You had a newcomer running against the system. They claimed to be clean; they claimed Fatah was corrupt.
Is it true that Fatah was corrupt?
The PA clearly didn't manage properly throughout. It does not really have to be a clear case of impropriety for there to be strong public opinion against a sitting authority. The context in which we live, occupation and checkpoints, people don't like that. In the early '90s, expectations were high, but then there was setback after setback. People started to say life before was easier.
But when you were sworn in, you spoke out against violence and incitement.
My first speaking engagement was to clergymen.
What did you say?
Essentially, that the party was over. Places of worship are places of worship. Religion is about tolerance, not about incitement. It was something I did out of deep conviction. It was evident we were not on the right path.
What was the reaction?
They complied. You know, oftentimes people do what they do simply because they are not told there is a line here … One side of it is OK, the other side isn't. There have to be rules.
Is Hamas still strong in the West Bank?
I wouldn't say that they are very strong, but I wouldn't say that they have no strength either.
How is Palestinian security performing on the West Bank?
Our security performance has improved markedly.
Is there security cooperation with Israel?
It's been dead for a long time, to tell you the truth. What do you do? Israel says it is taking care of security, but it's doing so from its point of view. I asked them, "What do you think happened to security conditions in the West Bank during the time period when you assumed the authority of the Palestinian Authority?" A state of lawlessness has emerged. How can there be security unless there is security for Palestinians and Israelis alike?
How do you unite Gaza and the West Bank again? How do you get rid of Hamas?
My starting point is not to get rid of anyone. We have to be accepting of political pluralism.
If Hamas keeps shelling Israel, won't the Israelis go into Gaza?
I spoke out publicly against violence from Gaza. Also, I spoke publicly against the disproportionate Israeli response. This is a cycle of violence that has to stop.
I have heard that you have good relations with Marwan Barghouti.
What's your impression of him?
He thinks strategically. [He has a] clarity of view as to how things could work out. He definitely has a strong presence within his party, that's for sure—within Fatah.
Is it a problem for you that you're not in Fatah?
I don't think it really is a plus for someone to be in politics without a party.
Do you want to join?
If I did not become a party man when I was younger, I'm not going to do that now. What I want to do is to give our people a sense of hope and possibility. You want your people, who are down but not out, to begin to think, "We can do this." Israel itself was not established in 1948; it was declared in 1948. It had the institutions of state before 1948. And that's what I want to [create].