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Palestinian PM seeks statehood amid diplomatic gridlock

world Updated: Nov 02, 2009 09:47 IST

At a time when Middle East peace appears as distant as ever, Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad has a new strategy for statehood, one that does not rely on US-backed negotiations.

"It's a construction agenda, not a destruction agenda. It's an agenda that is all based on the notion of building positive facts on the ground," Fayyad told AFP in an interview.

His plan is unaffected by what he sees as the failure of the peace process after 16 years of on-off talks or by Palestinian objections to any resumption without a freeze on growth of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.

"We want to make peace, not only just talk about it, but 16 years into this, time and again, we hit this snag of things not moving forward because ultimately it's up to the occupying force to end the occupation," he said, referring to failed talks stretching back to the 1993 Oslo accords.

"It's time to have that basic, fundamental concept revisited."

He aims to build the institutions of a viable Palestinian state by 2011 regardless of whether any progress is made in talks with Israel.

Fayyad insists his programme is not, as Israeli critics allege, a plan to unilaterally declare statehood, but to create "facts on the ground" that will force the international community to demand Palestinian independence.

"Contrast that with what Israel is doing," he adds, referring to the settlements.

On Saturday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on both sides to return to the negotiating table and said the Palestinians' insistence on a complete settlement freeze, initially backed by Washington, should not be a precondition for the relaunching of talks suspended during the Gaza war.

Few expect Israel's hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to give further ground on settlements in the absence of US pressure, but Fayyad says the beauty of his programme is that it can proceed either way.

His government is determined to adhere to the Palestinians' own obligation to halt violence through an ambitious two-year-old West Bank security crackdown involving hundreds of US-trained troops that has won praise from the international community, including Israel.

The US-educated former World Bank economist has also reformed Palestinian finances, securing billions of dollars in pledged international aid and launching development projects across the occupied West Bank.

And he has a scheme for ensuring that vast areas of the West Bank that Israel hopes to keep, known as Area C, become part of a future Palestinian state, not by haggling over them at the negotiating table but by building on them, just as Jewish settlers have done for more than 40 years.

"Area C is not disputed territory, it is occupied territory, and the Israelis have to relinquish control," he says. "It's an integral part of where the Palestinian state is going to emerge."

Meanwhile, Fayyad hopes that the international community, not just the United States, will eventually compel Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories it occupied during the 1967 Six Day war.

"International requirements are not recommendations, just as a red traffic light is not a recommendation to stop," he says.

That should begin with the Middle East Quartet -- the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia -- insisting on a settlement freeze, as they did earlier this year, Fayyad says.

"The entire community of nations was right in considering that there has to be a much higher standard of accountability," he said.

"There has to be fulfilment of these obligations in order for the political process to succeed where the previous rounds failed."

It is far from clear whether Fayyad, an independent technocrat with a tiny political following, can shepherd his plan across the widening rift between the main Palestinian political powerhouses Hamas and Fatah.

Hamas has never accepted Fayyad, who was appointed prime minister by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in the wake of the Islamist movement's June 2007 Gaza takeover.

And Abbas has called for presidential and parliamentary elections for January, which could widen the already bitter divide and spell the end of Fayyad's term as prime minister.

Fayyad insists, however, that his programme enjoys the support of the Palestinian people, with whom he has been meeting in recent months in near-daily visits to towns, villages and refugee camps across the West Bank.

The frequent public appearances have led many to wonder if Fayyad is cultivating his own grass-roots following ahead of a possible presidential run based on a platform of economic reform and improved security.

"I'm campaigning for something, and that is the government programme... I am not campaigning for a position," he says.

It is a stock answer to a frequently asked question. It is not a denial.