Monday, January 24, 2011

Fayyad at MAS

I don’t usually find it useful to go to a meeting or conference to listen to a politician; you can usually find what they think or have said elsewhere. Besides, if it’s a public forum they are less likely to be particularly candid, especially if there plenty of cameras and microphones in front of them. That said, they do have a pulling factor, which the most insightful academic in the world can’t match – mainly because the more critical the academic, the more likely they are to be further away from power and thus to implement their vision.

With that in mind, having been in Palestine for nearly a year now, when the opportunity came to listen to the prime minister, Salam Fayyad, speak at the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute’s (MAS) annual conference, I had to go. His shadow has loomed over the course of everything that I’ve worked on over the past year, mainly relating back to his Ending the Occupation, Establishing the State programme, the so-called Fayyad Plan, which has been the government’s main vision for the past 18 months.

It’s the basis for the Palestinians’ Plan B: to build up an embryonic Palestinian state unilaterally and then press for diplomatic recognition in the absence of any negotiations with the Israelis. In August the two-year timeframe for the plan will come to the end, which has prompted much speculation. At the same time, at our conference on aid intervention last September in Birzeit, the Fayyad Plan subject to various critiques, mainly for its neoliberal line (i.e. build up a market economy, a private sector, deregulate, etc, etc).

So to be able to listen to the man himself was something I wanted to do, even if it meant giving up my Sunday off. He took umbrage with the title of the MAS conference – Economic Unity: A Key for Ending the Occupation and [Establishing?] Sustainable Development – on the grounds that that using economic unity as leverage to end the occupation overlooks the fact it is the occupation and internal Palestinian division between the West Bank and Gaza that is cause of the absence of economic unity.

Unfortunately, having made this shrewd point, Fayyad failed to explain how to overcome it. How exactly is political reconciliation to be achieved between his administration and that in Gaza? He made no mention of it. Without political reconciliation how can a vision for economic unity between the West Bank and Gaza be achieved?

His answer appeared to be more of what he’s already doing: building up the West Bank’s legal structure, encouraging investment and developing infrastructure. Yet as I said above, it disregards Gaza and how to provide the same sort of development there without any political reconciliation. At the same time, having pinpointed the occupation and the principal cause of Palestinians’ economic problems, I’m still no clearer to knowing how state and economic building in the West Bank will achieve Palestinian independence. Of course there are logical reasons for preparing for independence, but in itself it will not prove sufficient to achieve statehood. It’s like the Palestinians’ unilateral move towards diplomatic recognition: while it may make them feel good, it doesn’t change the reality that the Israelis won’t be budging from the OPT any time soon.

One other point which I think might merit some closer investigation by us researchers: Fayyad made heavy weather of a recent Israeli press report that suggested the PA’s dependence on the donor community had increased over the past year. This ran counter to his own impression that the amount of aid had fallen, from $1.28bn in 2009 to $1.1bn in 2010 – and which ties with his own preference to see Palestinians reduce their aid dependency. I was struck by his comments on this since his claim went against what Mandy Turner noted in her presentation at a seminar at the Kenyon Institute before Christmas. She pulled out a table which showed a constant rise in aid since 1994 (I must ask where she got those figures...) but acknowledged that this only showed half the story. It wasn’t necessarily the case that the amount of aid had risen; rather, it has begun to be accounted for in a much more transparent and coherent manner recently. To this I might also add that the figures that are coming through now may well be disbursements of commitments made previously and not then honoured; so while it’s ‘new’ now, it’s actually an ‘old’ promise of aid. All of this only goes to show how complicated analysing aid flows in Palestine really is.

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