Reporting from Ramallah, West Bank — No one seems to know what to make of him. Israelis puzzle over the cleanshaven technocrat who denounces violence. Palestinians see an outsider who never cut his teeth on the tear-gas-choked streets of intifadas.
Now, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad hopes to confound expectations even further, pursuing what some see as a quixotic goal of laying the groundwork for an independent country by August.
No matter that peace talks are stalled. If Palestinians build the trappings of a state, he believes, a real state will follow.
"Part of getting where we must go comes from transforming this from abstract concept to the realm of the possible," he said in an interview in his Ramallah office. "A key point of strength is to impart a sense of inevitability."
Over the last year, the pragmatic, suit-wearing former World Bank economist has worked hard to burnish his image with skeptical Palestinians — harvesting olive trees with farmers, attending protests against Israel's separation barrier and organizing boycotts of products made by Jewish settlements in the West Bank. His government's approval rating rose from 34% in 2008 to 43% last month, according to one poll.
During a visit to Jericho in the fall, Fayyad could barely hide his delight when children mobbed him like a returning war hero. In a display of adoration he rarely sees, they even serenaded him with a popular Palestinian chant about sacrificing their "blood and soul."
Israelis too have taken notice of Fayyad, and they seem unsure of how to confront this new-styled Palestinian leader who's a darling of the international community and is demonstrating increasingly sharp political instincts.
In a public relations coup in November, Fayyad embarrassed Israeli officials by announcing that the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority had spent $5 million renovating neglected schools and roads in East Jerusalem, an Arab-dominated area that is under Israeli control but where Palestinians hope to one day build their capital.
"He will kill us with his moderation," quipped Yossi Sarid, newspaper columnist for Haaretz and a former lawmaker, who only half-jokingly labeled Fayyad as Israel's "Public Enemy No. 1" because he is quietly defying the usual Israeli characterization of Palestinians as extremist and violent.
Israeli President Shimon Peres calls Fayyad the "Palestinians' first Ben-Gurionist," referring to Israel's founding father.
Fayyad, 58, denies political ambitions, but many think he's angling to take over one day as president; the current Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is 75 and has frequently threatened to quit over the faltering peace talks.
Although Fayyad is a long shot because he is not a member of the powerful Fatah party, the list of possible presidential successors is short, particularly with the recent sidelining of Palestinian strongman Mohammed Dahlan, who apparently angered Abbas by appearing too eager to take over the top job.
"Fayyad is going to become a serious political player because he is the only one who can play this game," Palestinian political analyst Hani Masri said. "Fatah does not have a person to replace Abbas when the time comes for Abbas to leave. Their only option would be Fayyad."
At the same time, Masri said, Fayyad, who has vowed to remain a political independent, may have to fight for the post.
"There are people in Fatah who hate Fayyad and speak against him," Masri said. Some in Fatah complain that Fayyad's pacifism will never work against Israelis and his state-building only "beautifies" the occupation.
Fayyad insists that he has no political aspirations beyond implementing his two-year plan to whip Palestinian institutions into shape so they will be ready for statehood by this summer.
"It's a campaign for the statehood vision, not a political campaign for office," he said. "Why would anyone who is so preoccupied with this kind of mission have other aspirations? It's a full-time job."
He dismissed speculation among Israelis that his secret aim is to unilaterally declare statehood, and break away from Israel, rather than reach an agreement over borders and territory. Israelis have been alarmed in recent weeks by Palestinians' success in winning formal diplomatic recognition as a state from several South American nations, including Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador and Bolivia.
Fayyad says that a fully functioning state can arise only from the political process and that his goal is simply to be ready once an agreement is reached.
He said he is surprised that his approach seems to "confound" Israelis, since he is largely borrowing from their playbook.
"Israelis say they want peace and a two-state solution," he said. "We're doing it. There is no hidden plan.... I'm sure Israelis can relate to this and to their own experience. It worked for them. Why not for us?"