Can Facebook Rescue the Palestinian Authority?

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Israel’s deputy foreign minister meant it as a put-down a couple of months ago when he said the Palestinian Authority was on its way to establishing a “Facebook state.”  At the time a flurry of governments, many of them South American, were giving a calculated boost to Palestinian aspirations by upgrading PA diplomatic missions to full embassy status.  Danny Ayalon, Israel’s no. 2 ranking diplomat and an inveterate blogger, compared this to clicking “Like” on FB — an enthusiastic and easy but essentially meaningless gesture given that, as a practical matter, Palestinian statehood cannot happen without the withdrawal of Israel forces from Palestinian territory.

But on Wednesday, a Facebook state looked like a savvy interface with a changing world.  Salam Fayyad, the former World Bank official who serves as prime minister to the Palestinian Authority, posted on his own wall, soliciting suggestions for cabinet ministers:

“In your opinion, in the light of the ongoing consultations aiming to form a government list, which people do you consider credible, have excellent leadership and scientific skills, and can be relied on to hold a ministerial portfolio?”

Within 16 hours, he had 346 comments (and 243 “likes”).   Translations from the Arabic indicate no great consensus on hiring, but a prodigious appetite to be heard:

“Dr. Salam Fayyad, we need freedom. We need to express our political opinions freely; we do not need to be imprisoned if we support Hamas.”

“Activate the role of the youth. We hope that the security forces end arresting the presidents of student councils in the Palestinian Universities to guarantee the freedom of speech and the active participation.”

“Closing down all alcohol stores so that God becomes pleased. Monitoring the pharmacists who sell drugs to the youth. Intensive control over the Governorates’ entrances especially those with borders with Israel to prevent drug trafficking. Consider the accused innocent until proven guilty, not the opposite…”

“We want to work.”

The post itself was an inspired stroke. Employing the social network that’s done so much to mobilize the insurrections elsewhere in the Arab world made the Palestinian Authority looks at least a little less like a candidate for overthrow.  Rebellion did not appear to be an imminent threat (not least because the Israeli occupation is job one), but the revolts elsewhere were clearly behind the PA’s recent decision to announce elections, dissolve its cabinet,  and extend a public invitation to Hamas to form a unity government. The militant Islamist party controls the Gaza Strip, while the secular Fatah party of Fayyad and PA president Mahmoud Abbas governs the West Bank.

Ending the split is, in fact,  the most immediate demand of a budding Palestinian youth movement that relies heavily on Facebook and texting to organize and mobilize.  Going by the comments, Fayyad appeared to disarm the kids by meeting them on their own turf. That could also be expressed as: Now they’ve got him where they want him.

“Thank you prime minister for your interest in youth,” wrote one. “I hope you will keep this page open for discussion, not only to form the government but also to listen to us.”

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