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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

May 25, 2003

The Radical Bean Counter

Here is a long piece in this week's New York Times Magazine section. When you get some time, read it because Salam Fayyad , the bean counter, may well become a key figure in the very near future in working with the finances of the Palestinian Authority. Here is a snippet


This is a story about fighting Palestinian chaos and corruption, about seeking to throw off Israeli occupation and build a democratic state of Palestine. It is about these things, because it is about one man's lonely pursuit of direct deposit.

The man is Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian minister of finance, the kind of Palestinian you rarely hear about, an economist trained in Texas who has never fired a gun, sent men into battle or served time in prison or exile. He met recently in Gaza City with half a dozen men who had done these things -- who do some of them still -- the chiefs of Yasir Arafat's Gaza security services, the most hardened of Palestinian warriors. It was Fayyad's intention to intimidate them.

As the chiefs arrived at the Saraya, the military headquarters in Gaza, some of them wore fatigues and were trailed by men carrying guns. Fayyad, as usual, arrived alone, carrying his black satchel and wearing his nice blue jacket, red-and-blue tie and spectacles.

Fayyad did not tell these men everything he thought: that he was horrified by the system, if it could be called that, for paying the 53,000 security officers from the dozen independent security agencies in the West Bank and Gaza; that he thought it was morally wrong to dole out $20 million in cash monthly, in plastic bank bags, to the security chiefs, to be handed out to their men, one by one; that he worried that some of the money, ''paying'' for ghost employees, might be lining the wrong people's pockets, perhaps even financing the kind of violence the security agencies were supposed to stop.

He did not make a point obvious to everyone in the room: that the power of the purse is power, period, and that his reform would help shift control of the officers from these chiefs, and from Yasir Arafat, to the first Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas. In theory, Fayyad now reports to Abbas; in practice, he checks in with both him and Arafat, the president of the Palestinian Authority, who appointed him last June; in reality, he is choosing his battles for himself.

Fayyad presented his idea as a common-sense change that anyone who favored efficiency and clean government -- as security officers naturally did -- would support. He had already divided the chiefs by previously persuading two of them. Now he, the economist, not any of the military men, began pounding the table. Unless the chiefs switched to direct deposit of paychecks, he said, he could not guarantee that their salaries would be paid. Foreign donors would cut them off. Did they want to be forced by outsiders to change, or to act with a sense of pride?

Later, with the matter undecided, I rode with Fayyad from Gaza back to Ramallah, in the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority is headquartered. He wondered whether he would have to use the weapon he held in reserve, a bean counter's laser-guided bomb: publicly naming the recalcitrant chiefs and declaring loud enough for the 124,000 Palestinian civil servants to hear that, if every agency switched to direct deposit, he would cancel the so-called intifada tax of 7 to 12 percent levied on paychecks by the Palestinian Authority during the uprising. He said he hoped that would turn the civil servants against the security leaders.
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