Perhaps the greatest casualty in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's campaign against political challengers has been former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. "Fayyadism" was once hailed in Washington's corridors of power — and by New York Times columnist Tom Friedman — as a refreshing alternative to the governing philosophy of other Middle Eastern regimes. As Friedman wrote in 2009, "Fayyadism is based on 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."
Abbas, however, appeared to have other ideas for the Palestinian Authority (PA). Alternatively, he may simply not have appreciated a potential political challenger being so openly adored by governments in the West. Either way, in a move that can best be described as political cannibalization, the Palestinian president went out of his way to marginalize his own prime minister.
The tensions between the two men were first apparent in 2005, when Fayyad resigned from his cabinet post as finance minister to run in the 2006 elections. Ma'an News Agency suggested that Fayyad resigned because of "hiring issues with President Abbas." The Jerusalem Post suggested that differences between Fayyad and Abbas over how to handle the economy also led to the resignation.
Of course, Abbas brought Fayyad back into government after the Hamas coup in Gaza. But the tensions quietly continued between the two men, although whatever differences they had were often kept out of the public eye. That changed in 2011, however, when Abbas began to orchestrate a series of trials against his prime minister's top officials. On November 29, the Palestinian prosecutor-general charged Economy Minister Hassan Abu Libdeh with corruption, paving the way for him to stand trial. The charges — breach of trust, fraud, insider trading, and embezzlement of public funds — dated back to Abu Libdeh's tenure as director of the Palestinian Capital Market Authority in 2008. In other words, Abbas was not trying Abu Libdeh for anything he did while serving in his current role in the PA. On top of this, the newly formed Palestinian anti-corruption commission had charged Agriculture Minister Ismail Daiq with corruption. The charges against Daiq were tax evasion and money laundering. Both cases are pending.
In Abbas's PA, corruption probes aren't usually launched unless the president wants them launched. From all appearances, Abbas chose to pursue these cases to discredit Fayyad and cast doubt on the prime minister's ability to deliver on his celebrated mandate of countering corruption. After all, the corruption reached the highest levels, and Fayyad had appointed the officials who were under fire.
In other words, these probes were not designed to rid the PA of corruption. Rather, by ousting ministers and hobbling Fayyad, Abbas created a possible window to replace them with figures more to his liking.
Meanwhile, from his sprawling Muqata compound in Ramallah, Abbas made the major foreign policy decisions affecting Palestinians while Fayyad worked with a skeleton crew in a modest office nearby. Abbas traveled around the world to generate support for the "Palestine 194" campaign (aimed at gaining Palestinian state membership in the UN) while Fayyad labored to bring in international donor funds.
In fact, Abbas's initiative at the United Nations endangered those sources of funding. The leadership styles of the two men were very different, to say the least. In 2011, according to officials who worked with them, the two figureheads of the Palestinians were barely on speaking terms.
In 2011, when Abbas began openly angling for international recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations — a finger in Washington's eye — Fayyad went on record opposing him. Although Fayyad had created the plan announced in 2009 to prepare the Palestinians for statehood, and as it became clear that the unilateral approach was infuriating Washington and prompting Congress to mull a cutoff in aid, he openly questioned the wisdom of the endeavor. As he stated in December 2011, "This is not the state we are looking for."
Fayyad was marginalized further when Abbas entered into negotiations to form a unity government with the terrorist group Hamas — a deal that would undoubtedly prompt a full cut in U.S. funding. He claimed that he was prepared to step aside in the name of "national unity," but Fayyad later went on record as refusing to serve the future Hamas-Fatah coalition government in any capacity.
Meanwhile, the West failed to provide him with the support he needed to ensure political survival. The Obama administration, not to mention the U.S. State Department, was fully aware of the power struggle in Ramallah and the toll it took on Fayyad. However, Washington feared that weakening Abbas — even if the end result would empower Fayyad — would lead to a power vacuum from which only Hamas would benefit.
For his part, Abbas knew that Washington valued his ability to fend off Hamas more than it valued Fayyad's ability to govern. This explains why he felt unencumbered to test Washington's patience, both when it came to political reform in Ramallah and the statehood bid at the United Nations. It also explains why Washington stood by silently as Fayyad struggled.
For months, it was rumored that Fayyad might be on his way out. Then, somewhat suddenly, in April 2013, Reuters reported that he had tendered his resignation. Fayyad's office declined to comment, but American officials offered reassurances that Fayyad was "sticking around." The timing of the reports was decidedly awkward. President Obama, during his visit to the Middle East the month before, publicly lauded Fayyad as a partner for peace.
Abbas's Fatah faction was apparently not terribly concerned with the optics. The faction was among the more strident voices calling for Fayyad to go. "Fatah has been left with no authority at all. All claims that Fatah had been in control of the West Bank are baseless and wrong," said Najat Abu Baker, a Fatah leader in the West Bank, in an interview with the UAE based Gulf News. "Fayyad who is not a Fatah cadre has been in total control of the entire West Bank."
On April 13, with rumors swirling, international news outlets confirmed that Abbas had finally accepted Fayyad's resignation. The news was a blow to U.S. diplomacy efforts, recently rekindled by new secretary of state John Kerry. But the prime minister's departure also raised troubling questions about the future of the PA's leadership.
With Fayyad on his way out, Abbas appeared to have overcome any institutional restraints on his power. He sat atop the PLO, the Fatah faction, and the PA, where he was four years past the end of his legal term with no new elections in sight. Abbas had no political challengers. He had no heir apparent. And he would not allow for a healthy exchange of political ideas in the public space. With Fayyad's resignation, his domination of Palestinian politics in the West Bank appeared complete.
Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. From State of Failure by Jonathan Schanzer. ©2013 by the author, and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.