Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a U.S.-trained economist who gained international respect and hefty aid donations for the Palestinian cause, said Saturday that he would step down in a move aimed at reviving a power-sharing deal with the militant group Hamas.
The shake-up is part of evolving leadership changes on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that could complicate the Obama administration’s search for peace in the region.
In Israel, Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu is working to form a coalition government of right-wing parties that gained a majority in the parliament elected last month. He has said he would reorient Israel’s talks with the Palestinians toward economic issues, away from the U.S.-supported goal of an independent Palestinian state.
With little hope for a statehood accord, the Palestinian Authority, led by the secular Fatah faction, is trying to end its bitter split with Hamas, an Islamic group that formally refuses to recognize the Jewish state. A reconciliation on terms favorable to Hamas would risk alienating Israel even further.
In a recent interview with The Times, Fayyad voiced some of the frustration that led up to his decision to resign.
He lamented the futility of a year of peace talks with Israel and the internal feud that has divided Palestinians between Fatah rule in the West Bank and Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip for nearly two years.
Reconciling with Hamas, he added, is well worth the risks. “From the point of view of our national aspirations, there is nothing more catastrophic than separation,” he said.
In his resignation letter, Fayyad said that by stepping aside, he hoped to ease negotiations between Hamas and Fatah on the makeup of an interim power-sharing arrangement. Those talks, being held in Cairo, began last month and resume Tuesday.
The proposed new government would oversee Gaza and the West Bank for less than a year. It would administer international aid pledged to Gaza following Israel’s devastating military assault against Hamas this winter and arrange for new elections of a president and parliament early next year.
Fayyad said he would leave office when an interim government was formed but no later than the end of this month. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who will keep his position, said Saturday that he expected a deal with Hamas by then.
Fayyad’s resignation “comes to enhance and support the national dialogue to reach a national unity government,” Abbas said.
An aide to Abbas said Fayyad could be reappointed at the end of March if a new government has not emerged. Diplomats from Western donor nations, his strongest supporters, were reportedly urging Fayyad to stay at least that long and seek a role in the new government.
But the 57-year-old prime minister, a former World Bank official and political independent, lacks a powerful constituency among Palestinians. Fatah politicians have been maneuvering for months to push him aside.
Abbas appointed Fayyad prime minister in June 2007 after Hamas drove Fatah forces out of Gaza in a bloody fight, as their power-sharing agreement collapsed. Hamas, which had defeated Fatah in 2006 parliamentary elections, considers Fayyad the head of an illegitimate government that serves Western and Israeli interests.
As prime minister, Fayyad has carried out reforms to make government more efficient and spending more transparent. With cooperation from Israel and the United States, he has deployed Palestinian security forces in former militant strongholds in the West Bank.
Last week, donors at a conference in Egypt pledged $5.2 billion for Gaza and the West Bank, saying much of the aid would be channeled through the Fayyad government. It was not clear to what extent those donations might be affected.
Abukhater is a special correspondent.