Posted by on July 16, 2012 in Blog

By Nama Khalil and Jeffrey Wright

On July 10, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia held a hearing entitled “Chronic Kleptocracy: Corruption within the Palestinian Establishment.” As their title suggests, the hearings were meant to expose the corruption of Palestinian political institutions, particularly that of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Fatah Party that remains dominant within the PA. As Ohio Republican and Chair of the Subcommittee Rep. Steve Chabot explained in his opening statement, the question of Palestinian corruption is of interest to the committee not just because of the $4 billion the US has spent on building Palestinian institutions since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1994, but also because of corruption’s deleterious effects on the legitimacy of the PA, which could erode its ability to make peace with Israel. The Subcommittee was correct in identifying the PA’s eroding legitimacy as a pressing problem, but to identify the PA’s corruption as its primary cause is to miss the forest for the trees.

The primary cause of the PA’s loss of legitimacy among the people it rules is its inability to deliver a satisfactory solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At its creation, during the heady days following the signing of the Oslo Accords, it seemed to Palestinians, Israelis and Americans that peace was right around the corner, and that the PA would be merely a temporary placeholder for the legitimately elected government of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state. Nearly twenty years later, that dream has died, and many Palestinians see little possibility for a peace deal in the near future. This outcome is a result of missed opportunities on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, but given the huge imbalance of power between the two sides (Israel occupies the West Bank, enforces a blockade of Gaza and holds a gigantic military advantage which includes nuclear weapons and billions of dollars in annual American aid), the responsibility for the lack of a peace deal must lie primarily with Israel, and with its American patrons.

None of this is to excuse or to defend the alleged corruption of many PA officials, especially Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and his sons. But it is vital to approach this issue in its appropriate context, much of which was stripped away during Rep. Chabot’s hearings. As he stated in his opening statement, “A lack of accountability and transparency undermines the trust of the Palestinian people in their political institutions and renders them ineffective.” To be sure, the perception of corruption within the PA doesn't help its legitimacy, but what really renders the PA ineffective is its powerlessness. Israel controls the West Bank’s airspace, water supply, electromagnetic spectrum and ports of entry. It maintains an extensive network of settlements, and roads connecting those settlements, that are accessible only to citizens of Israel, and Palestinian travel within the West Bank is circumscribed by ever-present Israeli checkpoints. In short, the PA is virtually powerless, and is correctly perceived as such by many Palestinians. The fact that many of its officials are corrupt certainly does not help, but it is this powerlessness that is at the root of the erosion of the PA’s legitimacy.

These hearings are also a part of a troubling pattern of animus towards the Palestinians and the institutions that govern them on the part of the current Congress. From cutting off aid to the Palestinian Authority, to threatening to withhold support from UN institutions that admit Palestine as a full member, to attempting to redefine who qualifies as a Palestinian refugee, this Congress has repeatedly demonstrated its hostility towards the Palestinian cause. Rep. Chabot’s subcommittee, for example, held a hearing a year ago that also questioned the utility of American aid to the PA. Measures like those listed above simply make it more difficult to reach an equitable, negotiated settlement that all sides acknowledge must be the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.      

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