Fayyad, driver of Palestinian statehood reforms, may miss party

Officials from both Hamas and Fatah have strongly suggested that as part of their recently struck rapprochement, Salam Fayyad will be asked to step aside.

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JERUSALEM // Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority prime minister, a former IMF economist and political independent, is perhaps best known for fathering the institutional reforms and economic growth necessary to sustain a Palestinian state.

But when his colleagues ask the United Nations to recognise Palestinian independence in September, the bespectacled, soft-spoken technocrat may not be around to see the two-year project that he largely engineered come to fruition.

Officials from both Hamas and Fatah have strongly suggested that as part of their recently struck rapprochement, Mr Fayyad will be asked to step aside. Mr Fayyad, 59, who earned his reputation not by resisting Israel with weapons, but with moderation, non-violence and growth-oriented strategies that targeted Palestinian corruption, may have finally to succumb to the sort of back-door politics that he has avoided.

"Both Fatah and Hamas don't want Fayyad as prime minister," Hani Masri, an independent involved in reconciling the two Palestinian factions, told The Associated Press.

Mr Fayyad's departure would likely upset the United States, Europe and other donors who have vested in him great confidence.

They have preferred funneling aid exclusively through the coffers of his increasingly streamlined and transparent bureaucracy, which reduced its dependency on foreign aid from an estimated $1.8 billion (Dh6.6bn) in 2008 to roughly $1.2 billion (Dh4.4bn) last year.

Speaking to Al-Hayat, an Arabic daily, Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas ideologue who helped negotiate the Hamas-Fatah unity pact, suggested that Mr Fayyad would be replaced in the soon-to-be formed interim government of Palestinian independents.

"The formation of a government will be in the context of a Palestinian national reconciliation, not a Palestinian-European reconciliation," he said in reference to the western-backed leader, adding that the "choice for head of the government will be made by consensus".

Even members of the Fatah faction that effectively controls the Palestinian Authority (PA) government in the West Bank, and which Mr Fayyad runs as prime minister, appear to have withdrawn their support of him in return for reconciliation with Hamas.

Soon after news broke last week of the unity pact, Azzam al Ahmed, the main Fatah negotiator, told The New York Times that Mr Fayyad would not be part of the interim government.

Some have expressed concern at the thought of his departure.

Saleh Abdel Jawad, a political independent and dean of Birzeit University's faculty of law, called Mr Fayyad a "stabilising factor" in Palestinian politics, primarily because he is neither Fatah or Hamas.

A Fatah prime minister "will create a cabinet of nepotism and clientalism, as was the not-so-glorious experience of his predecessor," he said.

Hamas's surprise success during 2006 Palestinian legislative elections triggered economic sanctions against the Palestinians by Israel and the so-called Middle East peace Quartet, consisting of the United States, the European Union, Russia and the UN. Israel and the US consider Hamas a terrorist organisation.

On the ground, Mr Fayyad's economic and institutional reforms appear to have bolstered his image. One poll released on Sunday showed that among 420 respondents in Gaza and the West Bank, 58 per cent said they preferred having Mr Fayyad as head of a new government.

His institution-building and two-year plan to ready the Palestinians for statehood have made him a symbol of a new, non-violent Palestinian resistance.

The plan also has helped Palestinian politicians find an alternative to stalemated peace negotiation with Israel, by instead seeking international diplomatic recognition for a Palestinian state.

But his cozy relations with Western donor nations and leeway in forcing through reforms such as anti-corruption measures have irked others, including the elites of the so-called Fatah old guard.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president and Fatah chairman, is thought to be one of them.

But Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian politician and member of Mr Fayyad's third-way parliamentary bloc, said Mr Fayyad would be prepared to step down if the process of Palestinian reconciliation demanded it.