I was last in Ramallah a year and a half ago, and the change since then is striking. The headquarters of the once-feared Palestine Liberation Organization had been on the second floor of a nondescript office building above a furniture store; now it is in a gleaming office tower adjacent to the sprawling compound of the Palestinian Authority’s president.
I’m not sure there is reason to fear the PLO anymore, but the organization certainly has a better address.
All around the center of town are fancy restaurants with American names, as well as newly constructed buildings, fried chicken joints and even a coffee shop with a familiar round green-and-white logo. Stars and Bucks, it’s called. Not even subtle.
There is rubble on every other street, and plenty of empty, trash-strewn lots along thoroughfares that could have looked the same half a century ago. But the signs of economic vitality are unmistakable, and while Ramallah remains, in the words of one observer, “a five-star prison,” it is also clearly striving to take its place among the national capitals of the world.
If there is one person most closely associated with this city’s ambitions, it is the man who greets me with a pleasant handshake and a businessman’s smile, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. His popularity extends from the Palestinian public to the Western halls of power, even to the Israeli government, where he is referred to approvingly. Yet his position is on the line, caught between the potential demands of a unity government with Hamas and the rising expectations for Palestinian statehood ignited by his government’s bold, some say reckless, move at the United Nations last September.
Fayyad seems undeterred. “We have to believe that this is something that can happen and indeed will happen,” he said, perching on the edge of the sofa in his well-appointed office. “It is definitely overdue, and the more that people really begin to view this as an inevitability, the more likely it is going to happen sooner. And when I say ‘people,’ I do not mean only Palestinians, but also Israelis.”
Fayyad seems intent on — to borrow a phrase most commonly associated with Israel’s settlement building — creating facts on the ground. For him, the appearance of statehood lies not in banners and proclamations, but in the ordinary functioning of government: the imperatives of paying bills, closing budget deficits, reversing decades of mismanagement and corruption that had plagued the P.A. and diminished its standing with its own people.
As befits a man with a doctorate in economics, Fayyad can get lost in the numbers, as if sounding the technocrat confers a certain legitimacy, making him seem like the governor of a medium-sized state or any one of the businessmen-turned-mayors who run large American cities. He clearly has a sense of humor about his wonkish predilections. Before excitedly telling me about a new management program, he said, “If you fall asleep now, I won’t mind too much.”