The Palestinian cause has never been more marginalized than it is today. That was the message conveyed by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in a meeting in Ramallah last week. The Arab Spring has deflected the attention of the international community and the Arab world, to the detriment of the Palestinians. But Fayyad was also frank that the uprisings were inevitable. The fundamental lack of respect for citizens in places such as Syria, Tunisia and Egypt, he stated, could not be sustained forever. With understated pride, he pointed to the lack of similar protests in the Palestinian Authority.
But the drama of the uprisings has contributed to a "lack of focus" on the Palestinians, a situation that Fayyad clearly found both novel and disturbing. He also added forcefully that the missteps of world powers in the fall of 2011 had dramatically set back the cause of Palestinian statehood. Pushing for agreement on final-status issues such as borders and refugees, at the expense of incremental moves to build infrastructure, co-operation and confidence, had been disastrous.
Fayyad noted that security co-operation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority was good, but he also asked pointedly why Israel would not allow for symbolic gestures, such as the creation of Palestinian police stations in areas under exclusive Palestinian control. Only days before he had traveled to an event in a village near Bethlehem with a sizeable security contingent. Why not allow for the establishment of a sheriff-like Palestinian security presence in such places? "This would not cost Netanyahu any political capital," he added, noting correctly that Israeli media rarely report even their own daily operations in the territories, much less Palestinian ones.
Such efforts would have symbolic value as gestures from Israel, and have the real practical value of demonstrating the growing effectiveness of the Palestinian Authority to its own citizens. Such initiatives would also put Israel and the Palestinian Authority back on track with agreements made under the Oslo Accords.
That same morning we spoke with Fayyad in his office, a terrible accident between a Palestinian school bus and a truck driven by an Israeli Arab had claimed the lives of five children and one teacher, and had injured 42 others. Dozens of children were being treated in both Palestinian and Israeli hospitals. A less horrific traffic accident ignited the First Intifada in 1987.
Fayyad cautioned that the calm that prevails was fragile and pointed to settler violence and attacks against mosques, which have lately occurred even inside Israel. He also complained about nightly Israeli raids into Palestinian areas.
When asked about the impact of the European debt crisis on aid to the Palestinian Authority, Fayyad stated that money continued to arrive. But he also added that he "does not get calls from world leaders about aid," a situation that he attributed to Palestinian marginalization.
Traveling through Ramallah, the fruits of Fayyad's infrastructure building are everywhere to be seen. Moving from the centre of Jerusalem north along a main artery, the separation between the two cities is difficult to perceive. Were it not for the separation barrier and the terminal, where most traffic was waved through, an observer would think that they were merely traveling from one side of town to another.
Ramallah is sprawling and full of new construction. Apartment blocs faced with stone rise up from every hill, and the government buildings under construction are testimony to Fayyad's technocratic vision of a modern Palestinian state. But reminders of how far that nascent state has to go are everywhere. As a rare thunderstorm dumped much needed rain on the Palestinian Authority, the main streets of Ramallah were flooded with more than a foot of water. A bus driver commented that the city has not cleaned the storm drains, and the rain drained from the streets into open construction sites and soaked the masses of uncollected garbage.
Fayyad had no comments on his PA rival, Mahmoud Abbas, or the Qatar-brokered unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas. If the deal goes through, a prospect that seems more remote every day, Fayyad's role in a new Palestinian Authority government remains unclear. In the past, Hamas has made it clear that Fayyad's presence would not be tolerated. But Fayyad remains the primary mover for good governance in the Palestinian Authority and may be indispensable. At the same time, how Fayyad himself could tolerate being part of an even more divided and squabbling government is equally unclear.
What remains true is that Fayyad is both the primary vehicle for a future Palestinian state and its most effective symbol. The flooding in the streets raised questions about the Palestinian project's effectiveness. The prospect of a government without Fayyad, under the leadership of Hamas and Fatah, two movements that have shown themselves to be fractious, violent and kleptocratic, should raise questions regarding the Palestinian project's ultimate viability. Losing Fayyad would guarantee the marginalization of the Palestinian cause.
Alexander Joffe is an historian and writer based in New York. Asaf Romirowsky is an adjunct scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Middle East Forum.