Here is a follow-up to my item yesterday about Mitt Romney and his comments about Palestinian culture in order to clarify some of the debate swirling on Twitter and the Internet. I want to make a couple of things clear: I was in no way disparaging the entrepreneurial and educational achievements of the Palestinian people, whose record in building human capital is among the most impressive in the Arab world. Nor was I claiming that Israeli security restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip play no role whatsoever in retarding Palestinian economic development. Obviously, they do. But even here Palestinian culture (and institutions) are, I believe, ultimately to blame.

Israel is not restricting movement in and out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip because it wants to play the role of colonial occupier or believes it has a duty to rule the benighted Palestinian people. The vast majority of Israelis are happy to give up any claims to rule in the West Bank or Gaza Strip and to acknowledge the Palestinians’ right to statehood. Indeed, in 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak was willing to cede upwards of 95 percent of the West Bank, part of Jerusalem, and the entire Gaza Strip to Palestinian rule. As we know, Yasir Arafat refused to take the deal.

Why? Much of the explanation may be found in Arafat’s character: shaped by a “resistance” struggle, he was unwilling to beat swords into ploughshares and become the president of a small, impoverished state with little claim on the world’s attention. But part of the explanation can also be found in the Palestinians’ dysfunctional political culture which they share in common with much of the Arab world–a culture that elevates grand gestures (such as “resistance”) over mundane realities such as improving economic life, and a culture that is so deeply impregnated with anti-Semitism it is simply unimaginable for most Palestinians to give up the “right of return” and truly accept they will never win back by force the land now occupied by the “Zionists.” Arafat was said to fear that if he actually gave up the struggle, he would not be long for this world, and he may have been right–look at the fate of Sadat.

If Palestinian political institutions–which, as I noted, are dominated by corrupt opportunists and ideological fanatics–were to change and moderates such as Salam Fayyad were to be truly in charge (rather than to be unpopular and marginalized, as is presently the case), then any Israeli government, even one dominated by Likud, would be willing to do even more to lift the security restrictions which Palestinians claim impede their economic development. So at the end of the day, Palestinian culture really does account for their impoverishment in spite of the tremendous success enjoyed by many individual Palestinians, especially those who have emigrated to other countries, and in spite of the vast amounts of foreign aid which has poured in to help them.

So too, Israeli culture helps to explain its success in spite of facing unremitting hostility from all of its neighbors since the day of its birth (which has forced it to spend a far higher share of GDP on defense than the U.S. or other Western countries) and in spite of its almost total lack of mineral wealth. It is not so much Israeli economic culture that explains its enduring success because, until fairly recently, Israel has had a backward socialist economy. Nor is it even the Israelis’ willingness to work hard–Palestinians work hard, too.

What is more important, I believe, is a factor identified by Francis Fukuyama–the level of “trust” in a society. Israelis have been willing, when push comes to shove, to pull together for the common good in a way that Palestinians, who have always been riven by clan and political rivalries, have not. Israeli political culture has also been resolutely democratic, and this, I believe, is the ultimate secret of its success–it is inconceivable that the egalitarian Israelis would have tolerated the rule of a strutting authoritarian like Arafat. Israeli political culture demanded that “resistance” fighters like Begin and Shamir put down the gun and compete for votes like normal politicians. The Palestinians have never, even now, demanded this of their leaders–or at least not made the demand stick–and they will continue to pay a heavy price for elevating “resistance” over economic opportunity.

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