The short drive from Jerusalem to Ramallah begins as you'd expect. The pristine setting of the old-new holy city slowly morphs into a more disordered vista on the outskirts of town — small Arab villages, humbly built of stone, displaying signs of economic decay. The streets are nearly empty.
Startlingly soon, the Israeli military checkpoint appears at a break in the expanse of the cement separation barrier. Immediately upon crossing, the most frequently photographed stretch of the barrier comes into sight, a lengthy and colorful mural that includes massive painted images of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as a young man and of Marwan Barghouti, who's in an Israeli prison for his role in the second intifada.
Nothing I've seen along the 14-kilometer trip, however, prepares me for what I will find in Ramallah, a place much of the world still imagines as a refugee camp: Streets teeming with auto and pedestrian traffic. Men and women moving quickly and purposefully. Privately owned businesses filled with customers. Beautiful new buildings of stone and glass. Numerous new construction starts. Government offices patrolled by polite, well-trained security personnel. A general atmosphere of busyness and safety.
I think: "It looks an awful lot like Palestine to me."
Ramallah exhibits everything we all have hoped to see after the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel — only it's all happening beforehand.
Born in a small West Bank town, the American-educated economist is second in command to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Fayyad's position as a political independent leaves him tied neither to Fatah's history of corruption nor to the terrorism of Hamas. In fact, Fayyad has consistently called for Hamas, which controls the portion of Palestinian territory beyond his reach, to recognize Israel. His successes are a repudiation of violence as a means to creating a Palestinian future.
"Our process is predicated upon a shift away from violence toward a positive agenda of state-building," Fayyad told me. "A solid majority of Palestinians supports a two-state solution, but only a minority believes it will actually happen. Our plan is to create the sense that a Palestinian state is inevitable."
Early signs indicate that the plan is working. The local economy is growing at a 7% yearly clip. The Palestinian Authority police force has been so effective that Israel has removed dozens of internal roadblocks within the West Bank. And to the dismay of Hamas and Iran — partners in pursuit of Israel's destruction — Fayyad's popularity throughout the world is decidedly on the rise.
Notably, Fayyad only once used the word "occupation" during our 30-minute meeting. He refuses to perpetuate Palestinian victimhood to villainize Israel, working instead to end the occupation by realizing a vision that neither Israel nor the rest of the world will be able to resist — a vision of readiness to be Israel's neighbor. He seeks a Palestinian state by August 2011, by which time he hopes the political process will "catch up" to his state-building efforts. And if it doesn't, he is counting on the transformation of the West Bank to pressure the political process.
There are hurdles to clear on both sides of the separation barrier. Fayyad's own people would have to trust that this approach can produce a state, not just a better life under Israeli occupation. Moreover, Fayyad's successes have been orchestrated in an authoritarian manner, and it's uncertain if his government can manage the transition to democracy. And of course, there are his rivals within Hamas and Fatah, who are determined to thwart him.
Precisely for these reasons, Americans should back Fayyad robustly. His success undermines the retrograde elements of Fatah, not to mention Hamas, and by extension the ambitions of Iran, Hamas' chief patron. In essence, supporting Fayyad is a way to diminish the influence of Iran without going to war.
Both in the United States and Israel, Fayyad can reach across the political divide. He offers the left the long-held vision of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, the end of Israeli control over Palestinian lives and the reaffirmation of nonviolent social change. For the right, there's the power of private sector entrepreneurialism to lift a people, the marginalization of Hamas and terrorism, and the reaffirmation that Israel should not be expected to surrender land without concrete evidence that its new national neighbor can control extremists.
Israeli political leaders across the spectrum — from Shimon Peres to Ehud Barak to numerous members of Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party — have lauded Fayyad. Many of America's staunchest defenders of Israel, such as Alan Dershowitz, have declared that Fayyad is for real.
Persuading Fayyad's own people will require a shared resolve in Israel and the U.S. to show Palestinians that a state in the West Bank and Gaza will be the reward for abandoning Hamas and trusting Fayyad. Praising Fayyad won't be enough. Discernible movement toward converting his de facto Palestine into a de jure Palestine is what's required.
Direct peace talks begin within days. As a Jewish leader who began visiting Israel 26 years ago — through periods of calm and of frightful terror — I have never seen an opportunity to untangle the lives of Israelis and Palestinians like this one. Nothing close.
The demographic clock ticks loudly toward the day when the growing population of non-Jews in Israel and the territories it controls will force Israel to choose between being a Jewish state or a democratic state. Meanwhile, Iran is arming Salam Fayyad's political opponents. What will we make of this precious and precarious opportunity while there is still time?
Kenneth Chasen serves as senior rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles.