How Salam Fayyad Will Save Palestine--Or Not

The Middle East is full of men who aim to impose order—it's been that way since at least the time of the pharaohs. But none has operated quite like Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister. Fayyad, 57, learned his methods partly in the United States, where he studied at the University of Texas and later worked for the International Monetary Fund. America's great institution builders are among his models. One of his favorite Founding Fathers is Alexander Hamilton, the aristocratic New York Federalist. At times Fayyad has also embraced the frontier ethos of the American West, where order more often takes the form of rough justice. (George W. Bush used to greet Fayyad in the Oval Office by flashing him the Texas "Hook 'em, Horns" sign.) One of Fayyad's most common remarks, which he repeats like a mumbled prayer, can sound very Middle American: "It has to make sense."

American-style attempts to impose order on the Middle East have not generally turned out well. Yet for once, something seems to be making sense in the Palestinian territories, thanks largely to Fayyad. Crime and lawlessness have been cut significantly in hot zones like Nablus and Jenin, and Hamas has become nearly invisible in the West Bank. The IMF pro-jects that the territories' economy could grow at a rate of 7 percent in 2009 (if Israel further eases restrictions on movement). Last summer the U.S. Congress felt comfortable enough with Fayyad to deposit $200 million into the Palestinian Authority's coffers, a rare occurrence in recent years. Fayyad's performance, Middle East envoy Tony Blair told me, has been "absolutely first class—professional, courageous, intelligent." In his unlikely way, Fayyad has become a paragon of Obama-era realism in the Middle East: unelected, slightly imperious, but also efficient and uncorrupt. In a recent column, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times hailed "Fayyadism" as a worthy model for potentates in the wider Arab world.

Now Fayyad has even greater ambitions. Last month he announced plans to build the institutions of a Palestinian state within two years—regardless of the progress of peace talks. Israeli officials balked, stressing that no real state will exist until Israeli demands for security are met. But for Fayyad, who has spent a lifetime trying to bring order to his life and the lives of his people, the Israelis were missing the point. "If you look at all the variables around us, we really don't have control over most of them," he told me one recent afternoon at his office in Ramallah. "This is the one element that lends itself to some measure of control. Who else is going to build it if we don't? We're not sitting on our hands waiting. We need to will this state if we want it. We should quit accepting things as fate." He called it a "high expression of self-responsibility" and said he didn't really understand why some Israelis were grumbling about it.

Still, Fayyad, the effective technocrat and pragmatist, will need to guard against morphing into a more familiar type in Middle Eastern capitals: the ruthless autocrat. He is not, after all, a democratically elected prime minister. The last time Palestinians went to the polls, in January 2006, Fayyad's constituents gave his party a dismal 2.4 percent of the vote. In a community where political factions have long raised their own militias, Fayyad commands the support of no private gunmen, nor even a party apparatus. (His tiny clique, which called itself the Third Way, disbanded after its lackluster showing in the elections.) It was only in the midst of a national crisis, after the Hamas takeover of Gaza in June 2007, that President Mahmoud Abbas elevated him to power in the West Bank by emergency fiat. "There was no way it was going to be democratic," Fayyad explained.

The prime minister has imposed the order he so values by helping to engineer a series of brutal crackdowns. In the past two years, PA troops have arrested some 8,000 Palestinians in the West Bank; nearly 700 are still in prison. Former inmates tell of beatings and torture. If prisoners see the inside of a courtroom, it is often presided over by a military judge. Critics contend that the arrests are largely political, aimed at West Bank Islamists. "The pendulum has swung from a state of lawlessness to a police state," said one Palestinian-rights advocate, who didn't want to be identified in order to stay on Fayyad's good side. The security sweeps also threaten to undermine any potential reconciliation between the West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza, which many observers believe is a prerequisite to any peace deal. Even some of the prime minister's closest friends have begun warning him in private that his heavy hand risks damaging his legitimacy. Looking like an American proxy is also a liability—one the Islamists do their best to exploit.

Over several days this summer I accompanied Fayyad on his journeys through the West Bank, where he seems to be trying to win popular support by funding hundreds of small projects like libraries and schools. Because the Palestinians are so heavily dependent on foreign aid—last year more than half of the PA's $3 billion budget came from abroad—West Bankers recognize that it is useful to have a leader on good terms with the West and well versed in global finance. Fayyad's reputation for honesty and transparency also helps. He is not shy about taking credit for the improvements and has become a ubiquitous presence in the territories, grinning for the cameras and snipping endless red ribbons.

The field trips had the manic air of the final days of a political campaign, though elections are not due until January of next year. As his armored black Mercedes wound its way through the rocky hills around Jenin, I asked him what he was running for. "Part of what you have to do is to be on a campaign," he told me—"all year long." He did not say whether he had studied the modern American concept of the "permanent campaign" during his years in Washington, but it's not something he picked up in Ramallah. "It's a new approach," he said. "Better than sitting behind a desk all day." Beads of sweat condensed on his lip and chin. Black curtains darkened the windows. He jumped out of the car, snipped a ribbon and pumped a few hands, then jumped back in. Later, after another stop to inaugurate a library, he glanced around the back seat of the Mercedes. "I can't find my cigarettes," he said quietly. A beefy bodyguard in a pin-striped suit snapped open the glove box to reveal a stash of five neatly shrink-wrapped packs of Winstons. As he found some relief in a smoke, I asked him about the accusations of the rights activists. "We're not a police state, with all due respect," he said. "I understand the substance [of the criticism]—that the pendulum has swung too far. But it had to happen. This country was going to go down the tubes unless something decisive happened."

The prime minister spent his youth running away from chaos. He grew up in the West Bank city of Tulkarm, and was 15 when Israeli troops stormed the area in 1967, routing Arab armies in the Six-Day War. "It was really scary," he says, recalling the sound and impact of mortar shells landing near his home. One shell shattered the glass in his bedroom windows. Shortly after the fighting ended, Fayyad's father moved the family to Irbid, Jordan. When it came time for college, in the early 1970s, he went north to Beirut, where he studied science and then economics at the American University. But by the mid-1970s, the Lebanese civil war was beginning to intensify. "It got really nasty," Fayyad told me. A mortar shell fell on the campus. Fayyad wanted out. He called a friend in Texas to inquire about studying economics there, but he had missed the application deadlines. "Khalas," he told his friend. "Enough. I want to come now." He got on a plane and enrolled in night school in America.

After earning his doctorate, Fayyad took a job in St. Louis with the Federal Reserve, and later moved to Washington. But in 1993, Yasir Arafat signed the Oslo accords with Israel, which established the Palestinian Authority. Fayyad wanted to go home. Two years later he was offered a post in the West Bank as the IMF's liaison to the PA, and in 2002 Arafat tapped him to take over as finance minister. Arafat had his own ideas about effective gov-ern-ance in the Palestinian territories. Often they were intelligible only to himself. In some sense, the Palestinian leader was a kind of prince of disorder, relying on dissension in the ranks to perpetuate his own rule. As a nod to his inscrutable ways, Arafat's subordinates began referring to the guerrilla leader as "Mr. Yes-No."

In a way, Fayyad's entire career has been a repudiation of Arafat's opaque rule. Even their superficial mannerisms could hardly be more different. Arafat led an ascetic existence, living simply and allowing a mangy stubble to grow unmolested. Fayyad is clean-shaven and prefers Italian suits, French cuffs, and Windsor knots. Amid the chaos of the intifada, there was nothing to gain by challenging Arafat directly. But Fayyad saw an opportunity to quietly chip away at his authority. Arafat's government had grown hopelessly corrupt. Security chiefs were paid in bundles of cash stuffed into plastic bags—an invitation to graft. As finance minister, Fayyad pushed for salaries to be paid by direct deposit to the troops' bank accounts, removing the temptation to skim. He also sliced the outsize salaries that Arafat relied on to keep subordinates loyal. Fayyad is said to have convinced the president's prodigal wife, Suha, to cut her six-figure salary significantly. (When I asked Fayyad about this, he said he couldn't remember the incident.) When he decided to break up the government monopoly on petroleum sales, Fayyad simply walked into the cartel's Gaza City office and demanded the accounting books. "It was almost like a coup d'état," he recalled.

When Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, Fayyad was not an obvious choice to lead the West Bank government. President Abbas faced a difficult dilemma. One school of thought argued that he should reconcile with Hamas and form a unity government with the men who had just routed his forces in Gaza. But instead, the president decided to concentrate on developing the territory he still controlled. The hope was that a flourishing West Bank would ultimately serve as an example of what was possible for Palestinians, luring Gazans back into the fold. Money was key. To Abbas, Fayyad seemed like the one man with enough credibility in the West to raise the required funds.

Fayyad was so jittery about the new job that he recorded his inaugural message instead of delivering it live, for fear he would freeze up. Some of the prime minister's security chiefs worried that Hamas might try to seize the West Bank next. Gun battles erupted even in normally secure cities like Ramallah. "This very building was attacked by gunmen," Fayyad told me as we sat in his office one afternoon this summer. "This very building!" The prime minister has no background in the military. He has never even fired a gun. Yet one of his first major decisions as prime minister was to send PA troops into Nablus, the stronghold of Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and other renegade militias. "I decided to throw everything we had at one place," he told me. "Against the advice of everyone I know." Aides wanted Fayyad to start with a smaller, less volatile city like Jericho. But the gamble worked. Nablus was quickly pacified, and Fayyad was hailed as a new ideal of Palestinian leadership. "The payoff was absolutely huge," he recalled.

Fayyad's troops, financed and outfitted by Western donors, fanned out across the West Bank. Working so closely with the Americans was and is politically risky for Fayyad. Palestinians are deeply sensitive to the charge of collaboration with the United States, and especially Israel. Fayyad is close to many Israelis; he once sat next to Ariel Sharon at a wedding, where the two men chatted amiably. But he needed to keep his distance now. If Israeli forces had intensified raids into the West Bank at the same time that Fayyad's men were trying to consolidate control, "this was going to look like a subcontracting job for the Israelis," Fayyad told me. "And you know what comes with that. It wouldn't have taken a genius to figure that one out." In the eyes of Palestinians, Fayyad would have quickly begun to look less like a hero and more like a stooge.

The Islamists still command a great deal of sympathy from ordinary Palestinians, including secular Fatah supporters. They are admired for their ethos of resistance and their network of social services. Palestinian security forces have maintained a running battle with their Islamist antagonists. But "what's worse now is the scale of arbitrary arrests," said one Palestinian-rights advocate, who asked to remain anonymous in order to avoid angering Fayyad. "It's by the hundreds now." The activist told me that PA security forces have also largely purged Palestinian civil institutions of those suspected of being affiliated with Hamas. He said that more than 400 teachers have been dismissed since November of last year. Fayyad, for his part, scoffs at the accusations. "We're not going after them politically," he told me, as his Mercedes careered through the hills around Jenin. "That would be stupid."

Still, Fayyad has brought a familiar style of Texas swagger to his battle with Islamist militants. The conflict with Ha-mas came to a head one night in May when a squad of PA troops gave chase to a handful of armed men near the West Bank city of Qalqilya. Fayyad's men had pursued the Hamas militants to their safe house, where they had barricaded themselves inside. "One of two outcomes is acceptable," the prime minister remembers telling his national-security chief. "Either these guys leave with their hands over their heads, or what has to happen has to happen." At 6:15 a.m. an officer called Fayyad and reported: "It's almost done." As the sun was rising, PA troops stormed the house, killing all the militants inside. Security experts I spoke with after the raid, including a senior intelligence officer loyal to Fayyad, were uniformly critical. They insisted that the PA forces should have given the militants more time to surrender before storming the house. When I asked Fayyad about it, he shrugged and said that he thought the operation sent a clear message. "This is for real," he said quietly. "No apologies."

Fayyad speaks almost nightly with his old colleague Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian politician and human-rights activist. Several years ago, the two briefly formed the Third Way to challenge both Fatah and Hamas. Ashrawi is a blunt, opinionated woman, and when I met her one recent morning in her office in Ramallah, she shared some of her concerns about the scope of Fayyad's reforms. "I'm worried about the excesses," she told me. "I'm sure somebody who carries weapons and is Hamas is more likely to be arrested than someone who carries weapons and is Fatah." She said Fayyad needs to hold his security chiefs accountable: "I went to him and told him—he has to be very firm." Ashrawi says she thinks it's an exaggeration to say that the West Bank has become a police state. But she believes that many of the most divisive incidents could have been avoided. These include a decision to briefly shut down the Ramallah news bureau of Al-Jazeera after it broadcast an unflattering report about senior Fatah officials. Fayyad says he took the action for the station's own protection. "Unfortunately," Fayyad recalled later, "in my business your choices are often not between good and bad but between bad and worse." But Ashrawi insisted that police could have been sent to protect the bureau rather than shutting it down. "You're rectifying one error but making another," she said.

Even good decisions can have negative repercussions. Fayyad is likable, and his vision for the future of the West Bank is attractive. He is an extraordinarily hard-working technocrat, and he's honest. Yet the same decisions that are improving security on the ground in the West Bank are making it more difficult to reconcile with the Islamists in the Gaza Strip. Fayyad says he has come to think such a rapprochement is unrealistic in the near term, although there are plenty of sensible Palestinians and international diplomats who disagree. And the qualities and actions that make Fayyad so appealing to Americans are the same ones that could torpedo him at the ballot box at home. "He is not a populist, and I don't want him to become one," Ashrawi told me. "He doesn't aim to please. He doesn't pander. And I like that." And yet if he is to retain his legitimacy for any length of time, he will eventually need some sort of mandate from ordinary Palestinians. "In the end," Tony Blair told me, "it all has to be endorsed in an election. Ultimately, the only legitimacy can come from democracy."

As the rural Palestinian land flickered past the windows of the prime minister's black Mercedes, Fayyad insisted that he was not running for anything. "Although there is a whiff of democracy about this," he added, a little sheepishly. He told me that he tries to be sensitive to the complaints of the rights activists, but he also says he makes a point of never responding to the criticisms of his political enemies. "Somebody had to do this in mid-2007," he told me later, referring to the crackdown and imposition of order in the West Bank. "If it wasn't me, somebody else should have done it. The odds were stacked against us. Very few people wanted anything to do with it, to be honest with you." Even now, the forces of disorder are never far from the surface. The prime minister knows this in his bones. He thinks he can keep it all together, but he also knows the danger of believing that he's indispensable. "I'm telling you—let's get on with it," he said. "Let's have elections. And whoever wins, wins. Let the better guy win. There are other people who can do this. If that's what's going to happen … " He trailed off. He sniffed and looked as if he could use a cigarette. "Believe me," he said, a little halfheartedly. "People will be pushing on an open door."