A microcosm of recent dynamics

Salam Fayyad resigned as prime minister of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority on March 7. His resignation was part of a picture far larger than mere politics in Ramallah. A few days earlier, a donor conference at Sharm al-Sheikh had pledged over $4 billion in aid for the Palestinians. Three days later, Palestinian unity government talks resumed in Cairo, where they continue to this day. All the while, indirect Israel-Hamas prisoner exchange negotiations also continue in Cairo, even as talks aimed at forming a new Israeli government led by Binyamin Netanyahu proceed in Tel Aviv.

Whatever Fayyad’s specific intention, his resignation appears to have been both influenced by these developments and a factor that may influence them. Indeed, his resignation seemingly reflects a microcosm of recent dynamics in the greater Arab-Israel sphere.

Beginning at the international level, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has effectively signaled that America’s $900 million in donations to the Palestinians must be administered by Fayyad. Yet the latter presumably feels that, even in the Obama era, it is not helpful for an Arab leader to be perceived throughout the region as "America’s man".

In contrast, most of the wealthy Arab donors from the Gulf are prepared to bypass Fayyad and use some alternative "neutral" mechanism to transfer reconstruction funds to Gaza. This approach was also damaging to Fayyad’s standing.

Then too Egypt, seeking to galvanize a new spirit of Arab unity, appears to insist on the emergence of a new Palestinian unity government no matter what the consequences: just paper over your differences and get on with it so you can appear as a unified people at the upcoming annual Arab summit in Doha–and so that the Palestine issue can again be essentially Israel’s problem and not Egypt’s. Against this backdrop, too, Fayyad was right to step aside, at least until the current unity exercise is over.

Moving yet closer to home, Fayyad needs no great powers of perception to understand that he is liked by neither Fateh nor Hamas and that his sole Palestinian cheerleader, PA President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), sent his negotiators to Cairo from a position of considerable weakness vis-a-vis both his own Fateh party and post-war Hamas. Fayyad’s successful efforts at governance have alienated and weakened the Fateh old guard and Fateh-oriented militias. The Dayton-trained PA security forces he has cultivated have suppressed Hamas in the West Bank. Yet Fayyad has virtually no political base of his own to fall back on.

Finally, Fayyad contemplates the prospect of a new Israeli government led by Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu. Israel’s next prime minister intends to advance only the economic and security spheres with the Palestinians at the expense of a political peace track. Ostensibly, this suits Fayyad perfectly insofar as the economy and security are his strong points–the areas where he has registered rare progress in recent years. In practice, however, such a partnership would turn him into "Netanyahu’s man" and doom him politically and possibly physically as well.

Moreover if, as many observers anticipate, an Israel-Hamas prisoner exchange is agreed in the days ahead, the release by Israel of Fateh "young guard" leader Marwan Barghouti is in any case liable to render Fayyad again a marginal figure in West Bank politics.

At the time of writing, it was not clear whether a prisoner exchange would happen, or for that matter how the Cairo unity government talks would develop. If there remains any chance at all that Fayyad will be asked to remain as head of a new unity government backed by both Fateh and Hamas, his resignation ten days ago was probably the right move. If the talks fail, he might remain in office anyway.

It is undoubtedly both a compliment and a huge burden to be seen in so many quarters as the only rational, capable and uncorrupt actor on the scene. It is also unfair, insofar as there are undoubtedly plenty of talented Palestinians fully capable of running the show in Ramallah and Gaza–if only circumstances were different.

But they are not different. The current Palestinian dilemma and Fayyad’s unique position offer yet another manifestation of the Palestinian failure since 1994 at state-building. A new unity government is liable to make matters worse, not better, insofar as Hamas will exploit it and the coming Palestinian elections to aggrandize its power. If this happens, Fayyad will be dearly missed.