OpinionIsrael-Palestinian Conflict

Horrific war may produce better Palestinian leadership

The reality is that a random set of business people would likely do a better job than the leaders now in power.

The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini salutes the Bosnian Waffen S.S. in November 1943. Credit: Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons.
The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini salutes the Bosnian Waffen S.S. in November 1943. Credit: Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons.
Douglas J. Feith. Credit: Courtesy.
Douglas J. Feith
Douglas J. Feith, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute, served as Under Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration.

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

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. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken implies this view by insisting on a P.A. 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 U.N. agency for Palestinian relief (UNRWA), which has dedicated itself to perpetuating the war against Israel.

Palestinians agreeing to administer the reconstruction would need security for themselves and their families, who might have to be removed to safe places abroad. The current Palestinian leadership would see them as political rivals, indeed enemies.

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. In any event, there is no harm in trying to move substantially beyond the status quo.

Working with Israelis, Saudis, Emiratis, Bahrainis, Egyptians and representatives of major aid donors such as Canada, the European Union and Japan, U.S. officials can identify competent, well-intentioned Palestinians and organize security for them. The reality is that a random set of Palestinian business people 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 Organization (which runs the P.A.), 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. It bears repeating that 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. It should establish and finance schools that teach useful skills, rather than indoctrinating kids to become martyrs in hopes of destroying Israel and the West.

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. The issue is not democracy but effective, relatively humane administration. New leaders may garner support if they use the aid to improve their people’s lives without enriching themselves or provoking war with Israel.

Helping better leaders arise would serve not only Palestinian interests but also those of the United States and much of the world. 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 U.S. 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 favored 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 P.A. more or less in the Mufti’s style. He framed his rejection of Zionism as a matter of honor and ruled out any permanent compromise with Israel. In 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered to recognize 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, P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas has also proven inflexible. In 2007-08, he refused to accept an Israeli peace offer similar to Barak’s. Yet Abbas is widely described as a “moderate,” which is true only in contrast to Hamas’s singular fanaticism.

The P.A.’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 P.A., 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. It’s a low bar. What can be done to help decent people hurdle it?

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 P.A. Considerations of humanity and peace combine here with considerations of security and U.S. national interests. The Biden administration would advance U.S. interests if it tried to empower a new Palestinian governing class untainted by corruption and ideological extremism.

“The Free Press” published a version of this article on Feb. 13, 2024.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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