Bahrain and the Palestinian governance problem
Jun 27, 2019 | Matthew Brodsky
Jared Kushner, US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, drew criticism recently when he accurately but diplomatically answered a reporter’s question about whether Palestinians are capable of governing themselves without Israeli interference.
“That’s a very good question,” Kushner told Australian journalist Jonathan Swan in an “Axios on HBO” interview. “The hope is that over time they can become capable of governing.”
Kushner, who has been tasked by President Trump with creating a Palestinian-Israeli peace plan, was right to express scepticism about the problem-plagued government operated by the Palestinian Authority (PA).
It’s far from certain whether the current entrenched and fossilised Palestinian leadership can stand without a web of Israeli security cooperation, or whether it can function without the financial corruption that promotes the maintenance of the status quo.
These concerns grew all the more urgent as the Trump Administration’s peace team prepared to head to Bahrain for the Peace to Prosperity Economic Workshop on June 25 and 26. The workshop is a significant component of the overall peace plan envisaged by the Trump team.
The idea behind the workshop was to provide an economic roadmap that paves a path to a brighter future for Palestinians. Yet the PA continues to obstruct progress that could lead to peace, economic development, and better lives for the Palestinians it claims to serve.
Not surprisingly, the Palestinian people have a very low opinion of the Palestinian Authority.
According to the latest poll conducted by the prominent Palestinian pollster, Khalil Shikaki, 82% of Palestinians believe the Palestinian Authority is corrupt. Only 34% are satisfied with the performance of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ government. And 60% want Abbas to resign.
Perhaps those sentiments shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, Abbas is currently serving the 15th year of a four-year-term, since no elections were ever held at the official end of his term.
It’s understandable that the Palestinian people want change. Recent revelations from leaked documents show that the PA Cabinet enjoyed a 67% salary hike while the labour market was sputtering in 2017.
If good governance and institution-building have proven elusive to the Palestinian leadership, marketing their cause internationally has not.
This is despite the fact that a December 2018 study released by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found that Palestinian leaders and institutions “do little policymaking, pursue no coherent ideology, express no compelling moral vision, are subject to no oversight, and inspire no collective enthusiasm.”
Nevertheless, the PA is one of the largest recipients of international development assistance in the world, averaging A$3.15 billion per year from 2008 through 2016, according to the Carnegie study. This is about three times as much foreign aid as the Palestinian Authority received from 1994 through 2000.
Unfortunately, the PA uses far too little of the foreign aid it collects for the betterment of its own people and far too much to fan the flames of hatred and promote violence against Israel.
For example, the PA’s 2018 annual budget allocated more than A$450 million for its aptly nicknamed “pay-for-slay” program. The program gives cash payments to the families of Palestinian terrorists and people killed, injured, or imprisoned during the course of violent demonstrations against Israel.
Given that the terror stipend amounts to more than the average Palestinian salary, it undoubtedly provides a powerful incentive to kill and maim Israelis.
Yet the international community continues to toss good money after bad with donations to the PA, reinforcing bad governance.
The Trump Administration has recognised the lack of return on America’s investment and slashed more than US$200 million in bilateral assistance to the Palestinians.
And Israel announced it would deduct US$138 million per year from the tax revenue it collects on behalf of the PA, in response to the terrorist stipend program.
The Palestinian response was predictable. “Even if we have only a penny left,” Abbas said last July, “we will give it to the martyrs, the prisoners and their families.”
New Palestinian Prime Minister Muhammad Shtayyeh was reading from the same old script when he recently claimed the Palestinian Authority is running out of money and could collapse this northern summer.
While Shtayyeh’s warning is meant to spur the international community to come to the financial rescue yet again, his suggestion that the PA might have to furlough its police officers was meant as a shot across Israel’s bow.
After all, the Palestinians in the West Bank depend on Israel’s security cooperation. Recall that the PA received Gaza after Israel’s withdrawal in 2005 but was ousted by Hamas in a bloody coup two years later. Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority have no interest in repeating the Gaza experience in the West Bank.
The PA “is plagued by financial and political corruption at the highest levels,” said Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He literally wrote the book on the subject, titled State of Failure.
“This is hardly the time for independence,” Schanzer said. “But it would be a good time for infrastructure and institution building.”
The “Peace to Prosperity” conference scheduled in Bahrain for late June is part of the Trump administration’s effort to address this need. But don’t expect the ostensibly cash-strapped Palestinian Authority to have attended the economic workshop.
The Palestinian Authority boycotted the gathering and embarked upon a campaign to pressure states and individual Palestinians alike not to attend. This is yet another official act of PA self-sabotage in a decades-long list of opportunities shunned.
Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco indicated they would send representatives to the conference. So too did global financial bodies, such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
As a result, Kushner and his peace team’s approach to peacemaking stands a better chance of moving the proverbial ball forward than repeating what hasn’t worked before.
In the end, much depends on whether the Palestinian Authority can rise to the occasion when it has institutionalised its own state of failure. Kushner is wise to question whether that can change, even as he is committed to making progress.