The Visionary: A Palestinian Reformer’s Downfall
If you were to pinpoint one moment when it looked as if things just might work out for Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, it would probably be February 2, 2010. That day, Fayyad addressed the annual Herzliya Conference, a sort of Israeli version of Davos featuring high-powered policymakers and intellectuals. It is not a typical speaking venue for Palestinians; yet Fayyad was warmly received. He sat in the front row next to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who—just before Fayyad ascended the stage—whispered into his ear and grasped his hand in what appeared to be a show of genuine affection. When Fayyad reached the blue and white podium, he garnered an enthusiastic round of applause from the hundreds in attendance.
Standing five feet five in a charcoal suit with glasses, frog-like features, and thinning salt-and-pepper hair, Fayyad didn’t appear all that charismatic—and he didn’t sound charismatic, either. He spoke in jargon-laced English with a deep nasal monotone. But what he had to say was dramatic—even revolutionary.
Six months earlier, with decades of negotiations and armed conflict having failed to produce Palestinian independence, Fayyad had proclaimed a bold new strategy: Instead of waiting for Israel to grant them a state, the Palestinians would build it themselves—brick by brick, institution by institution. Fayyad’s “state-building program,” as it was known, had earned praise from the likes of Israeli President Shimon Peres (who called him the “Palestinian Ben Gurion”) and The New York Times’ Tom Friedman (who coined the term “Fayyadism” to describe “the simple but all-too-rare notion that an Arab leader’s legitimacy should be based not on slogans or rejectionism or personality cults or security services, but on delivering transparent, accountable administration and services”). Even some right-wing Israeli politicians had spoken favorably of Fayyad, especially when comparing him with Yasir Arafat or Hamas.