Australia/Israel Review


Want two states? Build a better Palestinian leadership

Mar 1, 2024 | Douglas J. Feith

New Palestinian leadership needed, but not in the mould of Haj Amin al-Husseini, Yasser Arafat or Mahmoud Abbas (Images: Wikimedia Commons)
New Palestinian leadership needed, but not in the mould of Haj Amin al-Husseini, Yasser Arafat or Mahmoud Abbas (Images: Wikimedia Commons)

Who should control Gaza after the major combat stops? Can new, better Palestinian leaders be empowered? 

One school of thought is that the Palestinians cannot do much better than the men (they are all men) who dominate the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken implies this view by insisting on a PA role in governing Gaza on the “day after”.

Another school of thought is more hopeful, or in any event, more ambitious. It sees the Gaza war as a chance for Palestinians, with outside help, to make a quantum-leap improvement in their politics and society.

There will inevitably be large sums of reconstruction aid donated by Western countries and perhaps also Gulf Arab states. Whichever Palestinians are given the power to spend that aid will, for that reason alone, become politically influential.

The United States can help arrange to channel the aid through a body whose governors would include Palestinians committed to conditions set by the donors. The main conditions could be radical but hard to argue against: 

  1. Don’t steal the funds; 
  2. Civilian projects only; and 
  3. Don’t promote hatred of Israel or the donor countries. 

There could also be more specific guidance – for example, construct permanent housing rather than rebuild “refugee camps” and require schools to promote non-violent resolution of disputes rather than extremism. This would be the opposite of the approach taken for 75 years by the UN agency for Palestinian relief (UNRWA), which has dedicated itself to perpetuating the war against Israel.

The Gaza war is a major historical event, and donors can set goals accordingly. They need not be content to aim for minor reforms of current institutions. Rather, they can pursue serious improvement in the political culture. The benefits could be large. 

Working with Israelis, Saudis, Emiratis, Bahrainis, Egyptians and representatives of major aid donors such as Canada, the European Union and Japan, US officials can identify competent, well-intentioned Palestinians and organise security for them. The reality is that a random set of Palestinian businesspeople would likely do a better job than the leaders now in power.

The aid donors can draw on the talents of Palestinian engineers, medical doctors and lawyers, especially Palestinians who have lived in the West and know firsthand the benefits of living under the rule of law. What is crucial is that the new administrators not come from the ranks of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (which runs the PA), Hamas or other terrorist or extremist groups. The existing political institutions are the problem, not the solution.

There are capable Palestinians who are not ideologically extreme. The aid donors’ challenge is to recruit those who might have the courage, integrity and ability to spend future aid money properly. This means using the aid to buy not explosives, rockets and tunnels for terrorist attacks, but apartment buildings, sanitation systems, power plants, and financial support for farms and factories.

The Palestinian people have never had such leadership. They have never benefited as they should from the billions of aid dollars donated to help them. And the aid donors – shamefully – have never before actually insisted that their funds be spent properly. 

Would the newly empowered Palestinians have legitimacy? Not at first, but no Palestinian leader now has a democratic mandate. New leaders may garner support if they use the aid to improve their people’s lives without enriching themselves or provoking war with Israel.

The effort may not succeed. But if it doesn’t, the current leaders will remain in power. The Palestinians will continue to suffer ill-government without a realistic hope of statehood. Though US President Joe Biden often talks of a “two-state solution”, there’s not even a glimmer of a chance of that outcome under existing Palestinian political circumstances.

 

It is hard to overstate the significance of bad leadership. For more than 100 years, violent, self-serving authoritarians have failed the Palestinian Arabs, producing neither general prosperity nor statehood, but only endless unsuccessful war against the Jews.

It is telling that the main Palestinian leaders sided with the Turks in World War I, the Nazis in World War II, the Soviets in the Cold War, Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, the jihadists after 9/11 and, most disastrously for themselves, with the anti-Zionists in the Arab-Jewish conflict over Palestine. The ideology, instincts and reasoning of Palestinian leaders have always favoured the wrong side, the losing side, the anti-democratic, anti-Western, anti-humane side. This has been a problem for the Israelis but a calamity for the Palestinians.

From the 1920s until after World War II, the Mufti of Jerusalem – Haj Amin al-Husseini – shaped and dominated Palestinian political culture. He used public funds corruptly to accumulate personal power and burned down the homes of Arab political opponents. He fomented anti-Jewish violence by promoting an ideology that combined Islamism, nationalism and false conspiracy theories about Jewish plots to destroy Muslim holy places.

From the late 1960s until his death in 2004, Yasser Arafat ran the PLO and then the PA more or less in the Mufti’s style. In 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered to recognise a Palestinian state in an area greater than 95% of the West Bank and Gaza. Arafat turned that offer down. He could have created a Palestinian state. He insisted instead on a Palestinian “right of return” that would have forced Israel to relinquish its Jewish majority.

From 2004 until now, PA leader Mahmoud Abbas has also proven inflexible. In 2007-08, he refused to accept an Israeli peace offer superior to Barak’s. Yet Abbas is widely described as a “moderate”, which is true only in contrast to Hamas’ singular fanaticism.

The PA’s civil administration has always been chaotic, dictatorial and corrupt. That is why Hamas, which at the time had no record of governing, won the 2006 Palestinian community-wide elections. Hamas was able to take control only in Gaza, however. The PA, still today in charge of the West Bank, remains unpopular, which is why there have been no elections since 2006.

Many of the millions of Palestinians are accomplished people who, under the right circumstances, could provide better leadership than Haj Amin, Arafat or Abbas has done. 

Gaza war convulsions are making possible changes in the political landscape that did not seem possible beforehand. The opportunity should not be frittered away on small-beer initiatives to try to reform the PA. The Biden Administration would advance US interests if it tried to empower a new Palestinian governing class untainted by corruption and ideological extremism.

Douglas J. Feith, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute, served as Under Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush Administration. © Jewish News Syndicate (JNS.org), reprinted by permission, all rights reserved. 

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