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Keeping a Ledger for the Future

Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayyad has taken on his tangled government and delivered reform -- a key step to statehood.

October 11, 2003|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

RAMALLAH, West Bank — He's an improbable hero, stomping through town in a cloud of cigarette smoke, sleeping little and talking much. But this short, frenetic paper pusher has done what only a few fringe optimists thought possible: wrestled some accountability into a snarled Palestinian government and delivered tangible reform.

A Texas-trained technocrat, anti-corruption crusader and zealous nationalist, Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayyad has risen to prominence in an era when Israelis and Palestinians are trapped in the margins between war and peace. In these precarious times, the outspoken Fayyad is widely celebrated as one of the few officials pushing doggedly ahead with solid change.

Since the 51-year-old banker quit his job at the International Monetary Fund to take charge of the Palestinian treasury, he's won the respect of the White House, many Israelis and Yasser Arafat, a group that can rarely find a scrap of common ground.

Fayyad survived the fall of Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas unscathed. And should the second Palestinian premier, Ahmed Korei, follow through on threats to quit, Fayyad will probably outlast him too. There is an air of political indestructibility in this brusque, owl-eyed figure. Privately, some Palestinians say Fayyad is second only to Arafat, more powerful than any premier in practice if not on paper.

Fayyad has cracked a powerful monopoly. He is polling thousands of workers on the government payroll -- first, to ascertain whether they actually exist, and then to find out who and where they are. He is forcing the security services to accept their pay by direct deposit, rather than passing around -- and pocketing -- fistfuls of cash. He drafted a budget of $1.28 billion, pushed it through the Cabinet and posted it on the Internet.

"By the year's end," says Fayyad, a brisk, slightly eggheaded man who occasionally delivers astounding assertions, "the Palestinians will be happy."

He talks fast, his eyes snap behind his spectacles, and he mixes the language of liberation into the jargon of stuffed shirts. He says he's taking government to the people. He vows to build systems where chaos, war and corruption have reigned. He uses the same adjective over and over: "Beautiful."

But Fayyad also carries what he calls "a real deep anger -- a deep anger that things could have been done better."

Although a native Palestinian, he is divided from the average Palestinian by years lived abroad and a foreign education. Coming home as a prodigal, there are indignities he still can't quite stomach.

The feet of the Gaza Strip's street kids, for example. Fayyad has been mulling them ever since they caught his eye. The children go barefoot in the summer, shod in the winter. An economist trained to read indicators, he could explain it only one way.

"The parents were trying to save up on shoes for school days," he says. "When you see something like that, you see yourself, you see your own children. These are your own people, and these are the ones who are wronged."

At moments like these, the bureaucrat is at his most human, and the public Fayyad is pure Palestinian. It doesn't last long.

"Our neck is on the line," he says firmly. "We do not have forever to do this."

So here he is, the minister of finance, "and a broke one at that," sitting alone in Ramallah before a sea of paper and a dwindling pack of Winstons. In the frame of his office window, the dying sun catches the skylights of the Jewish settlement across the way.

It is Friday, the customary day of rest in the Palestinian territories, but Fayyad has been working since dawn. He stays late to answer his e-mail because he wants to nudge a government of fading files and yellowing paper into cyberspace. It's been a fight, but then again, so has just about everything else.

"I wish him luck," says Israeli economist Eli Sagi. "The people who have their hands on the power are strong, and their system has to be broken down. It's not going to be easy."

Fayyad had been gone nearly three decades when he came home to Jerusalem in 1995. A native of the West Bank town of Tulkarm, he moved as a child to Jordan, studied in Lebanon, and took his PhD in economics from the University of Texas in Austin before working for the IMF in Washington.

In the mid-1990s, after the Oslo peace accords raised the prospect of Palestinian statehood, Fayyad joined legions of Palestinians who made their way home.

"I had this strong desire to come, I was really antsy," he says. As the first IMF representative to the Palestinian Authority, he was a banker in a suit, navigating among a hardened generation that had come of age in Israeli prisons and exile.

Then as now, Palestinian power resided in the Fatah ("conquest"), the revolutionary party founded by Arafat and Abbas and soon joined by Korei.

Fayyad has no political affiliation. Still, Mahdi Abdul Hadi, head of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, called him a "genuine nationalist."

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