Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Are Palestinian Building a State?

For several years now, it has been widely reported that Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Prime Minister, has been hard at work building up the institutions of a Palestinian state. Respected proponents of Palestinian statehood, such as Hussein Ibish, have argued that this institution-building program has the potential to generate its own dynamics that contribute to Palestinian statehood within a year's time, irrespective even a final peace settlement with Israel.

It has long been a challenge for me to square away the inconsistency of an ostensibly credible state-building program, greeted with enthusiasm by the international community, and the pervasive cynicism, even hostility, among Palestinians that I know towards Fayyad's efforts - which they variously equate with authoritarianism, elitism (in that most of the institutions are staffed by party apparatchiks driving new BMWs) and collaboration with Israel.

In a Foreign Policy article that summarizes his conclusions in a Carnegie Endowment Report, Nathan Brown brings context and clarity to these affairs:
First, it is simply not true that his cabinet is building institutions on the West Bank. Instead, it is improving the functioning of some existing institutions in some areas -- and failing in others. [...] The legal system is operating more smoothly in some areas (courts are more efficient and are handling non-political cases better), but it is also politicized, bypassed by the security services, and hamstrung by internal rivalries. The education system is merely holding together (which is credit to Fayyad's cabinet), but it is hardly improving. [...] For all his admirable qualities, what Fayyad has managed to do is to maintain many of the institutions built earlier and make a few of them more efficient. [...]

Palestinian democracy has died, and Fayyad could not operate the way he does (and would probably not be prime minister at all) if it were still alive. The president's term has expired, the parliament's term is also expired, no new elections are in sight, elected local officials have been selectively dismissed, and local elections have been cancelled. Opposition supporters have been ousted from the civil service and municipal government and their organizations have been shuttered. Activists are detained without charges; court orders have been ignored; and the broader citizenry is increasingly administered according to laws that are drafted by bureaucrats out of public view. This is not the "rule of law" if the phrase is to have any meaning. [...]

Fayyad is not building a state, he's holding down the fort until the next crisis. And when that crisis comes, Fayyad's cabinet has no democratic legitimacy or even an organized constituency to fall back on. What he does have -- contrary to those who laud him for not relying on outsiders -- is an irreplaceable reservoir of international respectability. The message of "Fayyadism" is clear, and it is personal: if Salam Fayyad is prime minister, wealthy international donors will keep the PA solvent, pay salaries to its employees, fund its infrastructural development, and even put gentle pressure on Israel to ease up its tight restrictions on movement and access.
Let's remember that this basket case of a state-building process, which exposes the deep contradictions and weaknesses of Palestinian polity and society, is proceeding under an Israeli security blanket and unprecedented financial support by the US and EU. Even under optimal conditions then, is anything short of creating an authoritarian-style Arab state conceivable in the timeline offered by ongoing peace efforts? Are the Palestinians self-organizing towards this outcome out of short term instability or long term socio-political necessity? In other words, hanging in the balance, will Palestinians choose to emulate the pluralistic democracy to their west, or the stifling autocracies to their north, east and south? Perhaps even more glumly, which of these two outcomes is more likely to make and enforce a peace with Israel?

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