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<h5>Fayyad in his office.</h5><h6>Calvin Grover / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Fayyad in his office.
Calvin Grover / The Daily Princetonian

A Palestinian prime minister, at home in Princeton

Salam Fayyad is fascinated by how Princeton works.

In the scope of the global political stage, Fayyad’s current title — a visiting senior scholar in the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) — is one of the less significant roles he has held. His office, a second-floor suite in Bendheim Hall with plenty of beige wall still showing, gives few hints that he was once the second-most powerful man in the Palestinian Authority.


Fayyad served as prime minister from 2007 to 2013, pursuing a reformist agenda that included improving security, strengthening the economy, and reducing corruption — a “technocratic revolutionary,” New Yorker writer David Remnick ’81 called him. His philosophy of “Fayyadism,” as it became known, centered around building the institutions of Palestinian government to achieve statehood. International observers noticed, and in 2011, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund declared that the Palestinians were ready.

But while he was widely respected by Western governments and many Israelis, Fayyad struggled with building a popular image at home, and he resigned in 2013 over policy friction with President Mahmoud Abbas. 

In the aftermath, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called Fayyad’s government “the best Palestinian peace partner Israel and the U.S. ever had.”

“Add another nail in the coffin of the two-state solution,” Friedman wrote at the time.

On Monday, the Palestinian Authority saw a major shakeup with the resignation of Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh and the rest of the cabinet. Recent diplomatic efforts spearheaded by the United States have envisioned a revitalized authority that could govern post-war Gaza. 

For all his prominent accomplishments on the international stage, Fayyad has remained a relatively unassuming figure on campus since coming to Princeton in 2017.


“You’d think that he’d have a bigger ego, but he really doesn’t,” Dan Kurtzer, the former United States ambassador to Israel, SPIA professor, and longtime friend of Fayyad, told The Daily Princetonian. “He’s shy in many respects.”

Having spent the better part of a decade in this small campus in New Jersey, Fayyad has immersed himself in the routine of Princeton life. 

“I liked about Princeton its self-running character, the sense of things all systematized and happening when they’re supposed to happen,” he told the ‘Prince.’

In an hour-long interview, Fayyad remained focused on classically Princeton issues: student-centered campus conversation, civility, and institutional neutrality.

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His adoption of the archetypal Princeton persona goes further. Like many of his colleagues, Fayyad himself was reluctant to directly engage on the issues of pro-Palestinian activism and protest that have embroiled American college campuses since Hamas’ attacks on Oct. 7.

“It’s not that I don’t have views. I don’t want to really get into this controversy,” he said. “I really would like to stay within the confines of the most strategic, longer-term conversation on this issue.”

What Fayyad means by long-term conversation is, quite literally, a conversation: the kind of lively but civil debate and discourse among students that universities are argued to be all about.

Creating that environment is another matter. For Fayyad, it starts with ensuring that administrators and professors remain neutral in order to avoid unfairly influencing student opinions. Because of this, he doesn’t teach classes specifically on Israel or Palestine at Princeton. Instead, he’s taught graduate courses on Afghanistan and the Arab Spring. His undergraduate class, SPI 322: Public Policy Issues in Today’s Middle East, focuses on public policy, capacity building, and economic development issues in the Middle East, with some focus on Arab states.

“This is how much I care about independent thought,” Fayyad told the ‘Prince.’ “No Israel-Palestine for me.”

“He was very upfront about the fact that it was not a class on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on Palestinian affairs,” Jake Brzowsky ’21 said, who took Fayyad’s class in the spring of 2019. Brzowsky was Fayyad’s only undergraduate thesis advisee and served as student board president of the Center for Jewish Life during his time at Princeton.

“He was extremely accessible,” Brzowsky recalled. “He was always available to discuss whatever was on your mind or his mind or regardless of whether it was directly connected to the course content or the thesis topic.”

But for all his sincere focus on campus, Fayyad coming to Princeton was not originally in the cards. In 2017, he was tapped to serve as the United Nations special envoy to Libya. In an abrupt decision, Trump administration officials blocked the appointment — a move meant to bolster support with Israel.

Upon hearing this news, Kurtzer said, “It took about 15 seconds for me to pick up the phone and to call him and to ask whether or not he would want to come to Princeton, if the University was prepared to bring him on.”

Kurtzer had known Fayyad since 2002, when he was the United States ambassador to Israel and Fayyad was finance minister of the Palestinian Authority. The second intifada was near its peak, and the authority was strapped for cash due to the economic downturn and Israel’s withholding of tax revenues it normally collected for the Palestinian governing body.

Kurtzer recalled inviting Fayyad and a senior Israeli official over to his residence for lunch, a move that inaugurated “a couple months” of negotiations between the two sides. It was eventually agreed that the Palestinians would receive the tax revenue, but that an international auditor, paid for by the United States, would supervise its disbursement.

“It was so important that the agreement was based on trust,” Kurtzer said. “But when the two sides reached an agreement, they let [the U.S.] know that they no longer needed the international auditor because trust had been built up to a point where Israel was ready to start releasing the funds and was sure that Fayyad would disperse them properly.”

Fayyad’s voice on Palestine has remained sought-after internationally, especially after Oct. 7. He has written in Foreign Affairs about “day after” political plans for peace in Gaza, appeared on Christiane Amanpour’s CNN show on the future of Palestinian leadership, and spoke on the Ezra Klein Show about his state-building agenda.

Fayyad’s writings “haven’t just been academic pieces,” said Udi Ofer, an Israeli-American professor in SPIA who occasionally chats with Fayyad over coffee. “They have framed the way the State Department is thinking about these issues, the way thinkers and other academics are thinking about these issues.”

In January, Fayyad was even floated by several news outlets, including the New York Times, as a potential replacement for Abbas. However, the Wall Street Journal reported last week that he had not been approached about a potential Palestinian leadership role. Fayyad also recently told the Middle East-focused news site Al-Monitor that he is not involved in official “day after” discussions.

In the meantime, Fayyad has “thrown himself into Princeton life,” Kurtzer said. Fayyad lives in town and takes long walks around campus most mornings, “even if it’s sub-freezing,” he said.

In many ways, Fayyad seems truly compelled by Princeton and its student life — how they group together, how they learn, and what they talk about.

“I’m fascinated by how institutions function and how wedded to the status quo people become sometimes. That, in many ways, inhibits progress,” Fayyad said. 

He generally observed that “students are happy here,” he said. “It was something that stands out. I haven’t changed my mind on it.”

“There’s something about the way the program is designed and the manner in which students are treated,” he added. “Students are made to feel the place is for them and about them.”

But Fayyad also expressed frustration with a perceived insularity among students centered around identity, especially in relation to controversial issues.

“People have a natural tendency to congregate around identity. There’s nothing wrong about that,” he said. “But if you do only that, that limits the scope for your intellectual, social, cultural development.” 

“It could also sow the seeds of division, polarization,” Fayyad added, arguing that controversy sometimes develops from “people kind of taking positions that are more related to their identity than anything else.” 

In order to foster discourse, Fayyad argued that University professors and administrators should maintain a fairly strict level of neutrality. He gave his own decision not to teach about Israel and Palestine as an example.

“I don’t think it’s really appropriate for me to teach my own experience,” Fayyad said. “Give the nature of leadership structures to [students], they begin to see things a little bit the way I tell the story, and that’s not very healthy.” 

In the same vein, Fayyad expressed concern about University administrators issuing statements on broad issues outside campus.

“Why should there be the expectation that the University president issue a statement on a world issue, a crisis?” he asked, adding, “When it’s not something you do for a living every day, you begin to wonder, why are we doing this?”

Among University administration, the most prominent voice on the conflict has been President Christopher Eisgruber ’83, who issued a short statement on Oct. 10, condemning Hamas’ attacks on Israel. In January, he addressed the conflict and its ramifications on campus in his State of the University letter, later drawing condemnation from some pro-Palestinian student activists for not commenting on Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.

At a recent meeting of the Council of the Princeton University Committee, Eisgruber said Oct. 7 was of “special historical significance and cruelty and I think that that warranted a statement of a rare kind.”

Fayyad said instead that University officials should be making efforts to reach out and converse with students in smaller settings.

“I’m talking about having lunch,” he said. “It’s amazing how much you will discover you can accomplish if you do things this way, as opposed to directive this, directive that, directive the other thing.”

While he doesn’t teach classes directly focused on the conflict, Fayyad himself has been a frequent guest speaker at University events on Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East over the years, including a panel with Kurtzer in the days after Oct. 7.

“That’s one way in which you can make students feel the place is about them,” Fayyad said about panels and speaker events.

Fayyad also stressed the importance of civil conversations. “[There’s] nothing wrong with being passionate about things. For heaven’s sake, I am,” Fayyad said. “But there needs to be civility.”

And compared to many of its peer institutions, the broad sweep of Princeton’s discourse seems to have been far milder, especially in the first weeks after Oct. 7. During that period, which included fall break, conversation on campus largely focused on vigils and mourning the dead and displaced. Events were hosted by the Center for Jewish Life (CJL), Princeton Chabad, the Alliance of Jewish Progressives (AJP), and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)

“On the whole, if you ask me, most certainly by comparison to what I saw and read about happening elsewhere, this is as orderly as it could have been,” Fayyad said, referring to Princeton’s climate. 

At other campuses, the political climate was far more contentious during that period. Columbia closed its campus to the public on Oct. 12 in response to competing pro-Israel and pro-Palestine protests. At Harvard, students who were allegedly affiliated with a controversial statement that called Israel “entirely responsible” for the violence had their names and faces displayed on a billboard truck that drove through campus; some later had social media profiles and hometown information published online.

Since then, Princeton has seen a number of protests in support of Palestine, which are typically greeted by smaller counter-protests in support of Israel. The most recent one drew hundreds of attendees. As of late, protests have shrunk down to within a hundred. Princeton’s protests have largely gone on without major disruptions — unlike at Columbia University, for example, where students attending a pro-Palestine protest in January were allegedly sprayed with a hazardous chemical. 

At the recent meeting of the Council of the Princeton University Committee, pro-Palestinian student organizers protested Eisgruber’s comments on a petition to divest the University’s endowment from certain companies associated with Israel. But they did so silently, holding up signs with a green thumbs up or red thumbs down in response to his answers to student questions. 

In contrast, last weekend at Stanford, pro-Palestinian student protestors disrupted a Family Weekend welcome session, interrupting the president and provost with chants like “Palestinian blood is on your hands.” Elsewhere, students have staged hunger strikes and organized sit-ins to demand their institutions act in support of Palestine.

However, “orderly does not mean not passionate, does not mean not vibrant, does not mean being introverted. It means exactly the opposite, but done in an orderly way,” Fayyad noted. 

Of course, all this discourse isn’t just for the sake of discourse. “With this dialogue, I think you can really achieve enormous progress and cut the distance between you and the students,” Fayyad said.

The students — that was what Fayyad kept coming back to. Not himself, not administrators, not the wider conflict, but the students.

“He’s so humble,” Ofer said. He recalled hosting a documentary screening on campus about Fayyad’s work on Palestinian statehood as prime minister and inviting Fayyad to a question-and-answer session afterward. “[Fayyad] was like, ‘Sure, if you want to, but you know, why would people want to watch a documentary about me?’”

Fayyad is not prime minister anymore. He’s on campus, and that’s exactly where he wants to be.

“Fewer speeches, more conversations. Fewer speeches, more conversations,” he repeated.

“How about that for a slogan?”

Miriam Waldvogel is an associate News editor for the ‘Prince.’

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