by Dr. Moshe Gershovich, Professor of History and Director, Schwalb Center for Israel and Jewish Studies, UNO
Amid the dramatic and depressing news coming from the Holy Land following the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teenagers, the emotional backlash it sparked, and recent warfare between Israel and Hamas, it is hard to believe that less than two months ago a group of Omahans had an opportunity to hear a very different vision for the future of that land.
In May 2014, I led a group of six UNO students and eight Omaha community members in the inaugural Study Abroad trip to Israel organized by the Schwalb Center. Our trip lasted just under a fortnight and included Tel Aviv-Jaffa, the Western Galilee, including Caesarea and Akko, the Central and Eastern Galilee, including the UNO-led archeological dig at Bethsaida, Masada and the Dead Sea, as well as, of course, Jerusalem. It was there, at Jerusalem’s Dan Panorama Hotel, that we got to meet with former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
Born in 1952 in the West Bank, Salam Fayyad received his BA from the American University of Beirut and an MBA from St. Edwards University, before earning a PhD in Economics from the University of Texas at Austin. Relating to the time he had spent in Texas, Fayyad recalled the famed football rivalry between the Longhorns and Huskers, commenting on the brilliance of Coach Osborn.
After teaching at Jordan’s Yarmouk University, in 1987 Fayyad joined the International Monitary Fund (IMF) in Washington DC, serving as representative to the Palestinian Authority (PA) from 1996 to 2001. Following this, Fayyad served as the regional manager of the Arab Bank in the West Bank and Gaza until he accepted an offer to become the PA’s Finance Minister. In 2006 he resigned that post, co-founded the “Third Way” party and won a parliamentary seat in the legislative elections. A year later (June 2007) the PA President, Mahmud Abbas, appointed Fayyad Prime Minster, a post he filled for six years until his resignation in June 2013.
The initiative to bring Salam Fayyad to meet with our group during its tour of Israel came from Charles J. Mikhail. He is a successful attorney from Biloxi, Mississippi, who, among other cases, served on the original team of lawyers to sue on behalf of various states the big tobacco companies and force them into a historical settlement. A Christian Palestinian and native of Ramallah in the West Bank, Mikhail has been a long-time supporter of UNO and the Schwalb Center. The two of us met at Harvard University nearly three decades ago and became best friends. When he had learned about the Schwalb Center’s trip to Israel last year, he decided to participate in it. He also extended an invitation for his good friend, Salam Fayyad, to meet with our group.
Mikhail and Fayyad arrived together at the Dan Panorama on May 23, 2014 and joined our group for a delicious Shabbat buffet dinner. Afterwards, we gathered in a small meeting room and shared an hour of conversation with the man who until recently has represented (and in some ways continues to represent) the best hope for Palestine to transition into normalcy and for the century-long conflict to finally become a thing of the past.
Fayyad’s political philosophy (sometimes known as “Fayyadism”) can be summed up as pragmatic transition towards Palestinian statehood, by building his nation’s infrastructure from the bottom-up. He is a staunch opponent of violence as a means to force a political settlement and he is similarly skeptical of the utility of the “peace process” as a means to secure the end of Israeli occupation and the achievement of a Palestinian state. He recognizes Israel’s need for security, which means strong defense and secure borders. For the Palestinians, security means greater economic independence and control over vital resources such as water, electric power production, roads and transportation, education, healthcare, housing and employment. He desires a sustainable, inclusive policy, and regards sustained Palestinian existence and progress, rather than violence, as the true form of resistance. He urged his fellow Palestinians “to stop appealing to historical narratives” and instead take a page out of the Israeli economic development playbook and look to the future, not to the past.
In the conversation that followed Fayyad’s presentation, our Israeli tour guide, Gila Rosenfeld, who espouses moderate left views, expressed her disappointment and sadness that Fayyad, a man with vision and a practical approach, was out of politics. Indeed, moderates out of power find friendly foreign audiences for their idealism, but unfortunately lack the leverage to directly institute change locally.
As we ended our meeting with Dr. Fayyad (who was on his way to South Korea where he hoped to continue his efforts to raise international investments in the West Bank), we could only ponder on the need for more pragmatic visionaries like him on both sides of the conflict. With current images of death and destruction constantly on our mind, that need seems to be greater than ever.