“Samir” is a tired Palestinian who works for one of the many security forces of the tired and almost bankrupt Palestinian Authority. He is 44 years old, and he is ready to quit. His personal beliefs are relatively modern; he has only three children and one more on the way. Throw some respectable work his way, and he would happily take off his uniform. But until that happens, he is not willing to be quoted by name.
He is the model target for the international support that is now headed for the Palestinian Authority. If new work is created for him and he can earn a living, if no one is hired to replace him and the security forces are thus reduced to an acceptable level, if many others do as he does, if corruption doesn’t interfere with this newly created economy, if terror does not infringe on the Palestinians’ ability to export their products, if Israel does not find it necessary to block all the markets for these products, if Iran does not make it impossible for people to work in such places without being labeled as traitors, if some stability is maintained for a couple of years … if, if, if.
Encouraged by the United States, the international community is pursuing a neatly crafted policy in the Palestinian territories: help the Palestinian Authority to reform its institutions; show the people a “political horizon” via negotiations with Israel; strengthen the position of President Mahmoud Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayad, to a point where they can control their subordinates effectively; turn the area they control in the West Bank into a model to which all Palestinians will aspire—thus making the people more receptive to undoing Hamas rule in Gaza.
Good luck with all that.
Like a bridegroom getting married for the third time, Abbas was pocketing checks 10 days ago, when he promised distinguished guests that this time it was for real. The international gathering of “donors” in Paris resulted, as expected, in a renewed monetary commitment to the building of institutions for the Palestinians. In fact, it raised more than expected: The $7.4 billion that nearly 90 countries and organizations pledged exceeded the $5.6 billion sought by Abbas. If lack of money was the reason for the failure to reform the Palestinian Authority, that is no longer the problem.
But as Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Middle East Affairs recently showed in a new study—”The Palestinians: Between State Failure and Civil War“—lack of money was usually the result, rather than the cause, of the problems Palestinians face on their way to statehood. “The clearest signs of the weakness of the PA were what Palestinians referred to as ‘the four Fs’: fawda (chaos), fitna (strife), falatan (lawlessness), and fassad (corruption).” Most of these internal problems are Palestinian-made.
International support could ease the pain, help feed and clothe hungry children, and it can also make Abbas more powerful—for a while. However, as Eisenstadt shows in his detailed study, failed states and state institutions aren’t easily rebuilt, and the international community’s track record in assisting such processes does not offer much reason for hope. However, expectations were raised for the Palestinians. Tony Blair has been preaching to skeptics and believers alike that the time has come to give Abbas a chance. “Paris now sets in motion [Palestinian] state-building,” he said.
A World Bank report, written for the donors conference, predicted that “even with full funding but no relaxation in the closure regime, growth [in the Palestinian territories] will be slightly negative, at around -2% per year.” In other words, no matter how much money is poured in, if Israel does not ease restrictions on the movement of people and goods in the territories, the Palestinian economy will keep shriveling. This is an argument that can be used in two ways: Blame Israel for failure—or encourage Abbas to get rid of the Palestinian armed groups, so that Israel can relax the restrictions without compromising its security.
And all this new money creates new temptations for Abbas: Yasser Arafat made an art of putting troublemakers on the payroll in order to keep them quiet. Pursing this strategy is much easier than creating new jobs—and much more helpful if there is another round of fighting with Hamas. It doesn’t help, though, if one is serious about building institutions for a lawful state. And Abbas is serious—or seems so.
Two weeks ago in Slate, Christopher Hitchens suggested that it was time to dismantle the CIA and start again from scratch. This advice is equally appropriate in Palestine. But as Hitchens knows as well as anyone, such luxuries do not usually materialize in the real world—neither for countries in need of intelligence forces, nor for emerging democracies in need of a ruling authority.
Short of starting over, building institutions will not be easy for many reasons, and chief among them is the fact that Abbas is relatively weak, and Hamas, which controls Gaza, is strong enough to be disruptive. Hamas is strong enough to make it difficult for Israel to ease restrictions, strong enough to make it hard for any Palestinian negotiator to compromise in the dialogue over the political horizon, strong enough to tighten control over Gaza and laugh off the naive notion that “if we only showed them a better future, the people would get rid of Hamas.” In sum, strong enough to make the dream of one healthy, reformed, Palestinian state into a reality of two weak Palestinian ministates.
The money poured into Abbas’ Palestinian Authority can buy him time, but can it also buy a solution for the disruptive force of Hamas in Gaza? When I met Tony Blair last month in Washington, to interview him for Ha’aretz, he was mysteriously silent whenever the question of Gaza was raised. He was obviously trying to create the impression that a plan exists to circumvent this problem, but it is not yet ready for public consumption. This is encouraging, but even with all that money flying around, a healthy suspicion should be forgiven.