Commentary Magazine


Why Palestinian Corruption Matters

In 2005, an extremely wealthy old friend of Yasir Arafat’s, Munib al-Masri, spoke about the missed opportunities he witnessed during Arafat’s time in power for an article in the Atlantic. Here is what he told the author of that piece, David Samuels:

With three hundred, four hundred million dollars we could have built Palestine in ten years. Waste, waste, waste. I flew over the West Bank in a helicopter with Arafat at the beginning of Oslo, and I told him how easy we could make five, six, seven towns here; we could absorb a lot of people here; and have the right of return for the refugees. If you have good intentions and you say you want to reach a solution, we could do it. I said, if you have money and water, it could be comparable to Israel, this piece of land.

It doesn’t sound like a lot of money, a few hundred million dollars. Yet since that helicopter ride, according to a new Congressional Research Service report, the U.S. has given the Palestinians about $4 billion. They didn’t build the state, as al-Masri hoped.

But as the report indicates, we had our own goals for the money:

• Combating, neutralizing, and preventing terrorism against Israel from the Islamist group Hamas and other militant organizations.

• Creating a virtuous cycle of stability and prosperity in the West Bank that inclines Palestinians toward peaceful coexistence with Israel and prepares them for self-governance.

• Meeting humanitarian needs and preventing further destabilization, particularly in the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian security forces have made some strides, but most of the prevention of Hamas terrorism is due to the efforts of the various Israeli security forces. The other two goals are obviously total failures. And it’s not just our money going down the drain; according to the report, the Palestinians are “among the world’s largest per capita recipients of international foreign aid.” So, the obvious question: Where does all the money go?

One answer is: Into the pockets of corrupt Palestinian leaders. That was the subject of a congressional hearing conducted by the House foreign affairs committee yesterday. Adam Kredo at the Washington Free Beacon has a good write-up of the testimony:

“Washington should simply acknowledge that there is a problem,” [Jonathan Schanzer] said. “The staff at the U.S. Consulate General in East Jerusalem reportedly knows that Palestinians believe their ruling elites are corrupt. But for reasons that are not entirely clear, the State Department has yet to issue a clear statement to address the issue, or what it intends to do about it.”

Elliott Abrams, a former national security adviser for George W. Bush, recounted the behind-the-scenes talks he had with Arab leaders who refused to support the P.A.’s corrupt institutions.

“I can tell you from my own experience, as an American official seeking financial assistance for the P.A. from Gulf Arab governments, that I was often told, ‘Why should we give them money when their officials will just steal it?” said Abrams, who noted that 82 percent of Palestinians believe their government is unethical. “Corruption is an insidious destroyer not only of Palestinian public finances but of faith in the entire political system.”

The extent of Abbas’ shady dealings has come to light in recent months, Schanzer revealed in his testimony.

Read the whole thing, including an earlier article from Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, detailing the degree to which Mahmoud Abbas’s corruption appears to extend to his sons.

The fact is, the Palestinians have absorbed enough–more than enough, actually–foreign aid to build the basic outlines, at the very least, of a functioning, accountable nation state. And while Arab states in the region don’t care much for their Palestinian brethren, even they are shocked and disturbed by the impression that the Palestinian leadership cares even less.

It’s doubtful American taxpayers would find this anything less than appalling—it’s their money. But the problem is deeper than that. Fatah has enabled Hamas’s rise over the years with its waste; its corruption bleeds it of public support, and its mismanaged funds prevent proper organization and security training, which makes a Hamas-Fatah civil war look about as evenly matched as a Globetrotters-Generals game.

So the corruption isn’t just about frustration, waste, and Palestinian poverty—though it is about those things too. It’s a legitimate security threat that is constantly undermining the peace process. In the age of the Arab Spring, there is simply no excuse to pretend this isn’t happening, or to make excuses for a government stealing from its citizens.

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