Who’s Afraid of Salam Fayyad?

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published November 11, 2009, issue of November 20, 2009.
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Life, John Lennon wisely observed, is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. For the latest evidence of that truth, consider the current moment in Middle East diplomacy.

Only yesterday, it seems, the chatter was all about freezing settlements and whether a Palestinian state still can or should be established alongside Israel. And then, faster than you can say Avigdor Lieberman, the subject was changed. Now the burning question in the inner sancta of Jerusalem and Washington is when Palestinian statehood will be declared and what if anything Israel will get to say about it.

There’s mounting evidence that the issue has alarm bells ringing in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office. American and Israeli officials are dropping hints that it was high on the agenda at the mysterious November 9 evening meeting between Netanyahu and President Obama.

The prospect of imminent Palestinian statehood was placed on the international agenda in August by Salam Fayyad, the pro-Western prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, in a 38-page policy paper titled “Palestine: Ending the Occupation, Establishing the State.” The document offers a detailed, ministry-by-ministry outline for a future state of Palestine “on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital.” Fayyad’s plan is “to establish a de facto state apparatus within the next two years.”

The document initially drew yawns. Most observers greeted it as just another in a long line of Middle East fantasies. In mid-October, however, a few influential Israeli pundits suddenly began taking it seriously, calling it a blueprint for a unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence in 2011.

In a long Jerusalem Post essay, two scholars from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a right-wing think tank with close ties to Netanyahu, warned that Fayyad’s paper “creates serious legal and security concerns for Israel.” They praised Fayyad’s plans for “ground-up” economic and governance reforms, as well as his “positive shift away from the politics of armed struggle.” These dovetail with Netanyahu’s ideas. But, they wrote, a unilateral statehood declaration “could end up derailing the peace process and lead to armed conflict between PA forces and Israel.”

The threat isn’t merely theoretical, they warned: Fayyad’s “state-building vision has already elicited Western enthusiasm and financial and political support from the Obama administration and European countries.”

There the matter sat for a month. Then, on Saturday night, November 7, Haaretz dropped an online bombshell: Netanyahu, who was leaving for Washington the next day to address the general assembly of Jewish federations, had been anxiously discussing the Fayyad plan with top aides for months.

Fayyad’s document, Haaretz reported, quoting unnamed Israeli officials, has a secret appendix detailing specific steps to unilateral statehood. What’s more, “reports reached Jerusalem” that Fayyad had a “secret understanding” with the Obama administration for diplomatic recognition once the Palestinian state is declared. American recognition, combined with a planned Security Council resolution, Haaretz argued, “would likely transform any Israeli presence” beyond the 1967 borders — including East Jerusalem — into an illegal incursion into sovereign Palestine. That would invite Palestinian defensive action. Netanyahu reportedly asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Middle East envoy George Mitchell for an American promise to veto the plan if it came to a vote in the Security Council. As of November 7, Netanyahu hadn’t gotten a “clear response.”

No major Israeli news outlet followed up on the Haaretz story over the next few days, either to flesh it out or to shoot it down. It wasn’t even mentioned except on blogs. Adding to the mystery, The Jerusalem Post published a long news analysis on Monday morning, just before the Obama-Netanyahu powwow, repeating the think-tank scholars’ earlier arguments against the Fayyad plan. The Post didn’t say the plan was alive or under discussion — only that it was a bad idea.

Was Fayyad’s plan a subject of the White House meeting? At press time, that was as opaque as the rest of the tale. Most of the world took the meeting’s cloak-and-dagger air as a sign that Obama was squeezing Netanyahu. That could be true, but Netanyahu wasn’t sounding contrite or peeved. He said the meeting was productive and that reports of bad blood were “ridiculous.” The White House press office said the main topic, besides Iran, was “how to move forward on Middle East peace.” And Rahm Emanuel pointedly told communal leaders gathered for the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America that peace must be negotiated, that “unilateral actions should be avoided and cannot dictate the outcome.” Memo to Fayyad: Watch your step.

No, we don’t know for certain what was said at that meeting. But in the days since, all hell has broken loose. In Ramallah, Fatah militants are up in arms over Fayyad’s plan. They claim he’s plotting with Washington and Jerusalem to depose Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and take over, perhaps together with former Gaza strongman Muhammad Dahlan. Abbas, of course, recently announced that he won’t run for reelection as president of the Palestinian Authority. As for Dahlan, he was happily channeling Fayyad to Israeli reporters, warning of a Palestinian bid for Security Council recognition if negotiations don’t succeed.

In Jerusalem, leaders of the opposition Kadima party are up in arms for much the same reason. The party’s number-two, former army chief of staff Shaul Mofaz, announced his own surprise plan for “provisional” Palestinian statehood on November 8, while Netanyahu was en route to Washington. Mofaz’s rivals call it a plot to depose party leader Tzipi Livni.

If you’re thinking that all this plan-making and name-calling looks a lot like the congressional health care debate, you’ve got a point. It’s not pretty to watch, but it seems to be headed somewhere. The end result surely won’t be what anyone had in mind at the start. But, as Lennon said, what you get isn’t always what you planned.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com and visit his blog at blogs.forward.com/jj-goldberg.

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