Nathan Brown on Salam Fayyad's "state-building"

Excerpts (with thanks to Sam Bahour) From Nathan Brown’s new assessment of Salam Fayyad and the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority: “Fayyad has become so indispensible to U.S. diplomacy in particular that there now seems a bizarre knee-jerk reaction to anything bad that happens in Gaza: delivering more money to Ramallah (as happened when the Gaza war concluded in January 2009 or after the Israeli raid on the Gaza flotilla in May 2010)…

“Washington tends to make the same mistake over and over in Palestinian politics—searching for (and sometimes finding) a particular individual who has the virtues needed to lead Palestinians in the path the United States wishes at a particular time. In Washington, Fayyad is the indispensible man of the hour, suggesting that once more the U.S. leadership is confusing a useful individual with a sound policy. Nobody I met in Palestine suffers from the same confusion. Even the most earnest officials are frustrated by the political context of their efforts—they see their effectiveness limited by the absence of sovereignty and feel that they are operating in a punishing holding pattern rather participating in an inexorable march toward statehood.

“[A]fter examining Palestinian institutional development on the ground, I see only spotty signs of progress—and there are also profoundly worrying signs of regression as well. Those who cite Fayyad’s success at building institution rarely cite a single institution that has been built. Instead they refer generally to improvements in ‘security’ and ‘rule of law’. (On security, they tend to concentrate on daily policing—where there has been improvement—and overlook the far more checkered record of the intelligence and security services.)  There is a reason for this vagueness. There simply have been few institutions built in Ramallah since the first Fayyad cabinet was formed in 2007. Instead, the focus has been on breathing life and regularizing institutions that were built in previous periods.

“There is no separation of powers; instead there is an increasing concentration of authority in the executive branch. There is no legislative branch. Court orders have ignored; judges have bowed out of some sensitive political issues; and the independence of the judiciary is hardly guaranteed.

“The fact remains, of course, that a campaign for “security” is often synonymous with the attempt to suppress Hamas. And as a result other problems—political interference, illegal detentions—do not seem to have been addressed. Or, rather, they have been addressed—by a decision at senior levels (the security service heads and perhaps the president himself) that the struggle against Hamas takes priority over the law…

This report and analysis by Nathan Brown can be read in full here.

Condi says there's work to do — and she'll keep on pushing

Here are exceprts from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s interaction with reporters on board her airplane en route to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Ramallah on Monday:

“I’m looking forward to what will unfortunately be a brief visit to the – to Israel and to Ramallah to discuss how we continue to push forward in the negotiations, to talk with people about the situation on the ground. General Fraser is with me and he’s going to stay behind to continue to work on some of the issues on the ground. I think at some point perhaps it’ll be a good thing for him to talk a little bit with you about some of the things that have been going on there.

“But obviously, we keep trying to push all of the tracks of Annapolis forward. And the trilaterals that I’ve had have been useful in helping the two sides to find areas of convergence, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do. Undoubtedly, it will not be my last trip here.

“…the way that we’ve been conducting these trilaterals is to help the parties in what has, for the most part to date, been a process that – in which they have not wanted to have public discussion of what they’re doing. They’ve wanted to push forward on these – on sensitive issues and continue to do that. They have an agreement that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. They also have an agreement that they’re not going to go out and talk about what they’re doing in each of the meetings. And so I honor that when we go to the trilaterals, because I think it’s extremely important just to keep making forward progress rather than trying prematurely to come to some set of conclusions.

“We continue to have the same goal, which is to reach agreement by the end of the year; a lot of work ahead to do that, and obviously, it’s a complicated time. But, you know, it’s always complicated out here. And we’ll just continue to do what I’ve done in these trilaterals over the last, I don’t know, four or five that I’ve had

“QUESTION: Madame Secretary, Foreign Minister Livni spoke to the press last week and she warned against too much international pressure, too much pressure to try to bridge the gaps. And obviously there’s an election coming up in the Kadima party, so are you mindful of that as you head into this trip?

“SECRETARY RICE: The internal politics of Israel are the internal politics of Israel. But I don’t think that anyone has been trying to bring pressure to bridge the gaps. What we’ve been trying to do is to help the parties to see how their own conversations might converge. And we’re going to continue to do that. And I think if you look back, you will have seen – you will have seen comments like that several times before.

“QUESTION: What is your assessment now of where Israel is in terms of respecting its Roadmap commitments and in terms of the quality of the roadblocks that it has removed?

“SECRETARY RICE: Well, I think that – let me start by saying both sides continue to have work to do on the Roadmap. And General Fraser and I have been talking on this trip about the importance of both sides accelerating their progress. I will say that there have been a couple of major – well, let me call – use the word “significant” checkpoints that have been lifted. That’s a good sign. Obviously, there is more that needs to be done. But that’s a good sign. And I think the Jenin project continues to mature. That’s also a good sign. But on both sides, in terms of Palestinian security and judicial reform, and in terms of movement and access, the Israelis and the Palestinians have work to do.

“…we said early on that if there – that calm in Gaza would be a useful thing because it – the Egyptians, who – with whom we worked, have managed to keep what is a very fragile situation at least stable, and that’s certainly a help to any process of trying to move forward on the peace process.

“Ultimately, though, Gaza has to be resolved and it has to be resolved on the basis of the – Abu Mazen’s program for it, which is that legitimate Palestinian Authority institutions have to be reinstated. I think we want to continue to look at what can be done at the crossings for regularization of those ultimately along the lines of the November 2005 agreement. So this is not, I think, a metastable situation, but it’s a situation that for now has seemed to allow at least people to – you know, the levels of violence to stay low, and that’s welcome.

“QUESTION: Do you see Hamas wanting a political role? Do you see Hamas wanting a political role and that’s why it’s calm?

“SECRETARY RICE: I think there are multiple incentives and motivations for the calm that is there. But Abu Mazen himself has laid out how a political “reconciliation” could take place. But obviously, a return to the status quo ante and a number of other steps will have to be taken, including continuing – including accepting the agreements that Palestinians have signed decades ago.

“There’s no doubt that the prisoner exchange is extremely important to – very important to the Palestinians. It’s something that Abu Mazen brings up each time we meet. And I don’t know whether or not it’s taken place, but if, in fact, it does, it would be a very good step. This is something that matters a lot to the Palestinians. It matters a lot to the Palestinian people. And it obviously is a sign of goodwill, particularly because it’s my understanding that some of these are pre-Oslo prisoners, which has been particularly of concern”…

Palestinian party people – celebrating Valentine's Day

On a night tour of Ramallah last night, I was reminded that today is Valentine’s Day. I would have forgotten, had I not seen the big red hearts in store fronts in the streets around Manara Square, the center of town. Florist shops were open late, preparing bouquets of beautiful red roses.

On my way back home, I stopped with a friend for Arabic pastries in the famous original Eiffel bakery on the main Jerusalem-Ramallah road. Just a little ahead, it was clear that there was something going on. Garbage bins were overturned in the street. Men in the bakery said that protesters were throwing stones at cars. The target of the anger was a new rule by the Palestinian Authority (PA) requiring Palestinians to pay all their back utility bills for electricity and water — or risk not receiving driver’s licenses or any other official documents. Since the start of the Second Intifada, with increasing Israeli security restrictions, many workers lost their jobs in Israel, and unemployment rose precipitously. Then, following a Hamas victory in parliamentary elections in early 2006, a U.S. and European Union boycott of the PA meant that nearly 160,000 government employees were not paid their salaries for over a year, and had to take bank loans to tide them over. Since the Hamas rout of Fatah security forces in Gaza in mid-June 2007, the donors have relented on the Ramallah-based PA, and government employees are now receiving their salaries — but repaying last year’s bank loans with 24% of their take-home pay. In short, there are few indebted Palestinians who can pay all the back bills at once.

Suddenly, a caravan of PA security vans zipped up to the Eiffel bakery, and three or four dozen PA security men descended from their bright blue cars with weapons in their hands, and closing the visors on their white safety helmets. They briskly chased the protestors off — back to the Amari refugee camp in downtown Ramallah from where they had come.

On my way back home, I entered my neighborhood, and there I saw three Israeli military vehicles pulled up at a local grocery story that stays open late. But, it wasn’t a coffee break. A dozen or more Israeli soldiers in olive green uniforms were standing outside, with their weapons, and a few of the bored young men were pointing the rifles and looking down the gun barrels at residential apartment buildings where families live.

Today, the AP reports from Gaza that “the territory is flooded with carnations that had been grown for export to Europe [but which cannot be transported out]. After the Hamas takeover, Israel and Egypt closed Gaza’s borders, banning trade, and only a fraction of the millions of carnations grown in Gaza this season were sold to Europe under a limited arrangement with Israel. On Thursday, Gaza flower growers dumped carnations at the Sufa crossing with Israel in protest. Al-Wakid, a policeman who’s stayed off the job since the Hamas takeover, said he began buying flowers for Valentine’s Day four years ago, when he was engaged. Since then, his wife has come to expect the gesture, he said. Across the street at the Rose Flower Shop, two young women, one dressed in a black Islamic robe and head scarf, bought a bouquet of roses, a rare sight in Gaza. The shop had managed to bring in 500 roses from Israel, using Gaza medical patients treated in the Jewish state as ‘mules’, and had about 50 roses left…” This report, by AP’s Karen Laub, is posted here.

Musing about Bush in the Muqata'a

Was George W. Bush, the U.S. president who visited the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, in his office in the Muqata’a presidential compound in Ramallah, mainly curious to see the place where he had kept Yasser Arafat on life support for years before his final illness, pinned down by marauding Israeli troops and bulldozers, whose leaders were constantly voicing their thoughts that Arafat should be assassinated?

It must have been a vicarious thrill of sorts for Bush to be there. He nearly walked on Arafat’s grave, which is within the compound, very near the helicopter launching pad that Bush took off from at the end of his visit — which included lunch in the Muqata’a.

Haaretz reported yesterday that, for the press conference sandwiched in between the meeting and the lunch, “a large panel placed behind Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. President George W. Bush and covered by plastic sheeting painted to resemble a stone wall. Reporters figured it was intended to act as a shock absorber in the event of an explosion. Near the podium was another U.S. import, bulletproof metal panels covered with black cloth that could provide protection for the president”. This report was published in Haaretz here.

Did the Americans leave these protective devices behind — to protect Abbas and others, and to protect Bush the next time he comes, which may be for the 60th anniversary of Israel’s declaration of independence in May.