Hussein Ibish
Ibishblog (Blog)
May 6, 2011 - 12:00am

Presented at the UNITED NATIONS SEMINAR ON ASSISTANCE TO THE PALESTINIAN PEOPLE: "Mobilizing international efforts in support of the Palestinian Government’s State-building program"

Helsinki, 28 and 29 April 2011




Since the theme of this UN seminar is “mobilizing international efforts in support of the Palestinian Government’s state-building program" I will not take any time to recapitulate what that program entails, except to note that it was a conscious decision in August 2009 by the Palestinian Authority government headed by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and under the leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas, to build the economic, institutional and infrastructural framework of a future Palestinian state in spite of the occupation and in order to end the occupation. As such, it represents a remarkable paradigm shift in the Palestinian approach towards seeking freedom and independence. In considering obstacles to this program, we must begin by noting that, since negotiations with Israel are stalled with few immediate prospects for resumption in the near term, state-building is now the main practicable vehicle for momentum towards a two-state solution. Therefore its strategic and political importance to the entire international community -- which is committed to the two-state outcome -- cannot be overestimated. As well as laying the practical foundations on the ground for Palestinian independence, the state-building program is also capable of filling a vacuum when negotiations are either stalled or proceeding too slowly, as they have been for many months now. Therefore, now is the time to take advantage of it so that it can fulfill this element of its purpose. Simply put, there is no other ongoing and systematic program for advancing the realization of a viable, practicable two-state solution and therefore it must be supported in the most vigorous and robust manner possible by all parties. I've been asked to address the topic of “overcoming political obstacles in implementing the state-building program,” and I will to review those obstacles coming from Israel, within Palestinian society, in the United States and in the rest of the international community, in that order.


1) Political obstacles from Israel

The most significant practical and political obstacles to the implementation of this project come from the government of Israel and other elements of Israeli society, because Israel is the occupying power in the territory in which Palestinian state institutions are being built. Since its inauguration, literally dozens of reports from multilateral institutions and NGOs have favorably assessed progress of state-building in the West Bank, but every one of them has recognized that the occupation poses a long-term threat to the viability and success of the project. In early April of this year, for example, the World Bank issued a report strongly praising state-building progress, repeating its 2010 assessment that Palestinians are now "well-positioned for the establishment of a state at any point in the near future.” However, it noted that “sustainable economic growth" would be difficult to maintain "while Israeli restrictions on access to natural resources and markets remain in place.”


The Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has welcomed and supported some aspects of the project, but often under the unhelpful and illusory rubric of"economic peace.” Since this conflict is not an economic but a political one, it can only be resolved in terms of a political rather than economic solution and there is no conceivable scenario of “economic peace.” All segments of Palestinian society, including the leaders of the state-building program, strongly reject this formula and would abandon the project if it became strictly a matter of economic development rather than a political project aimed at independence and statehood.


Security is the sine qua non of governance, and the new Palestinian security services have been the key predicate for most of what state-building has accomplished since 2009. Law and order has been restored to formerly lawless or chaotic cities such as Jenin and Nablus, which has encouraged investment. Israel was initially skeptical about the new security forces but military and national security officials in Israel are now almost unanimous in praising their performance, and particularly their security cooperation with Israel's own forces. This cooperation has facilitated the lifting of some significant checkpoints and roadblocks, thereby easing restrictions on access and mobility and further contributing to economic growth. However, ongoing Israeli incursions into areas supposedly under Palestinian security control pose a serious threat to the credibility of the new security forces and open the entire PA government to spurious charges of “collaboration.” Evidence suggests that many of these incursions are conducted for political rather than genuine security reasons, and the rate at which they continue to occur poses a significant immediate-term obstacle to the state-building project and to its political credibility and viability. It is therefore vital that they are kept to a minimum if they must occur at all, are only conducted for the most serious security reasons, and insofar as possible are coordinated with Palestinian authorities. In the long run, of course, they need to end entirely.


While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many other Israeli leaders have welcomed economic development and the establishment of law and order in “Area A” as defined by the Oslo Agreements -- which covers approximately 17 percent of the territory of the West Bank but includes about 55 percent of its Palestinian population -- they have strongly resisted state building efforts outside this zone, particularly in “Area C,” which is approximately 55% of the West Bank and includes almost all Israeli settlements. We should note that these designations were agreed to last for a five-year transition period  and yet continue, more than a decade later, to define the political status of different parts of the occupied Palestinian territories.  These restrictions, that amount to serious and, in the long run possibly even fatal, obstacles to the state-building program must be overcome, and Israel must understand the need to move past this anachronistic framework that is rooted in the politics and policies of a different era.


Charges that state-building is a form of “collaboration” are strongly refuted by consistent efforts by the PA government to expand the reach of the project beyond “Area A,” efforts that have been rejected, blocked and undone by Israel. Perhaps the most interesting example is the struggle over the road to the village of Qarawat Bani Hassan. Israel would not grant its residents a permit to build a paved road, so quietly the PA paid for the small road to be created last year. Israeli forces destroyed the road last fall. It was then rebuilt, again with PA funding, and in March was again destroyed by occupation troops. Ultimately the state-building project, if it is to be meaningful, cannot be restricted to Area A, or even B, but must operate also in Area C, since the overwhelming majority of that territory will be an essential part of the state of Palestine. Through such efforts, along with school projects in occupied East Jerusalem and other measures, the state-building project poses a simple question to Israel: is this territory going to be part of our state, or part of yours? If it's not going to be part of our state, then what kind of "Palestinian state" are we talking about and what future are we really envisioning? State-building calls everyone's bluff: it asks the Israelis if they are serious about Palestinian independence and will really allow it to be built; it asks the Palestinians whether or not they want to devote most of their energies to building their own society; and it asks the international community how serious it is about the two-state solution. The question of Area C, in this regard, is a crucial test for all three.


Two additional obstacles to Palestinian state-building from the Israeli side need mentioning. There is an atmosphere that suggests increased Israeli skepticism about the state-building project and some of its key leaders, and an apparent reduction in cooperation from the Israeli side in recent months. There many factors that may have contributed to this unhelpful shift in attitudes, including stalled diplomacy and the kind of challenges to the status quo cited above. But there is also significant Israelidomestic opposition to the concept of Palestinian statehood, including within the current coalition cabinet. These significant Israeli political forces are deeply threatened by the project and have worked, and will continue to work, to undermine or block it at every stage. They may well have taken advantage of the difficulties that have emerged in the negotiations to unfairly cast doubt on the intentions behind, and the possible impact of, the Palestinian state-building program.


2) Political obstacles within Palestinian society

Generally speaking the state-building program has been supported by the Palestinian public, and it has grown in stature and credibility due to its significant record of achievement in a short period of time and under very difficult circumstances. Apathy, defeatism and skepticism among the general public are being overcome by tangible, palpable results on the ground. However, there are three key sources of political opposition to state-building within Palestinian society. Hamas totally rejects the project and spares no opportunity to condemn it and its leaders in the harshest terms. There has also been a dismaying tendency on the part of some figures on the Palestinian secular left to dismiss the project as window dressing for the status quo, or even “collaboration.” Sometimes this criticism is presented as skepticism about the practicability and viability of the project, but sometimes intense and deeply unfair personal attacks, particularly against Fayyad, have been part of these critiques. There are Palestinian political actors and factions on both the secular left and the religious right that are in opposition to the very aim of the two-state solution, and aspire instead to more ambitious, and impracticable, agendas. They therefore tend to view state-building as deeply threatening since they recognize that it promises to succeed in laying the groundwork for statehood. Finally, there are some entrenched political interests in the West Bank that feel threatened by aspects of the state-building project, particularly when it comes to well-established networks of patronage, as well as traditionalists who simply feel uncomfortable with a new and radically different approach to seeking independence. It is essential, however, that the success of the project demonstrates its indispensability for the secular-national Palestinian cause and the future of all moderates in the Palestinian political landscape.


3) Political obstacles in the United States

For those of us working in the United States in support of state-building, as well as Palestinian human and national rights generally, there is a constant battle to ensure that the project is not viewed essentially as a development program and a matter of humanitarian foreign assistance. From the outset in the summer of 2009, the American Task Force on Palestine played a leading role in insisting that state-building is not, and cannot be, merely a development program but is political and strategic par excellence. There is a culture in some elements of the "development community" in the United States that rejects and resists political implications for what are seen as development projects. It was therefore vital that Palestinian state-building not be framed as a development project but as a strategic and political intervention of the utmost importance. This view has been penetrating American thinking at the highest levels, as reflected in comments by US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that have increasingly accorded the project its due importance.


A further problem with viewing state-building as simply a development project is that support for it is then framed essentially as a “gift” to the Palestinians, which can be taken away in the event of diplomatic disputes or political disagreements. Yet since its success is vital for the realization of a two-state solution, its fortunes are intimately tied to the most fundamental American national interests. Obama, Clinton and many other officials have stated very clearly that Israeli-Palestinian peace is essential and not optional for the United States, with the Secretary of State recently calling Palestinian statehood “inevitable.” Obviously, it is in the interests of all parties that an inevitable state be successful, and this is the purpose of the state-building enterprise. It therefore is an imperative for the United States and the international community to support the program and not a "gift" to the Palestinians or an expression of altruism, but a vital matter of policy and national interest.


Finally, there remains some political opposition from those in the United States who are not yet fully reconciled to Palestinian statehood, including elements of the extreme American-Jewish right, some evangelical Christians who adhere to a dispensationalist theology, and others who continue to oppose, or at least not fully support, ending the occupation that began in 1967. Like some of their Israeli counterparts, these American voices are at best tolerant of economic development in Area A, but profoundly opposed to the broader political aims of the state-building project and either openly attack or subtly undermine it and seek ways of limiting or ending US government support for the program.


4) Political obstacles in the rest of the international community

The rest of the international community also has a vital role to play in supporting the state-building project financially, technically and politically. Many multilateral institutions have been of great assistance to the program and given serious, credible and almost entirely positive reviews of its progress. Governments around the world have provided generous support, although some important pledges remain unfulfilled. Particularly in the context of the global economic recession, donor fatigue is a significant concern. Palestinian state-building is not at the point where it can do without major foreign aid, even though Fayyad and his government have been successful in significantly reducing both the amount and percentage of foreign aid in the PA budget steadily over the past three years. Yet the recent World Bank report I cited above noted the importance of donor aid to the economic development that has been achieved in the West Bank over the past two years.


The error of perceiving the project as essentially a development program is not restricted to the United States and needs to be combated globally so that all parties understand its profound political and strategic implications and how much is at stake in its success or failure. Some elements of the international community have not yet understood that even though diplomacy will ultimately determine a successful outcome, and an end to the conflict and the occupation, state-building is essential for improving the prospects for renewed negotiations and their eventual success. It is also crucial in ensuring that the future Palestinian state is robust rather than brittle. More can and should be done not only in terms of financial support for the project but also greater technical assistance, partnering and twinning between Western and other international institutions and Palestinian ones, and in providing diplomatic and political support to the project and its aims over the long run.



The most significant political obstacles to implementing the state-building program are born of four main factors. The first is donor fatigue or lack of resources, which by definition fails to understand the stakes at hand because any failure to create a two-state solution, which presently depends on successful state-building more than any other factor, will be far more costly. The second is a persistent misrecognition of the state-building program as essentially a social and economic development agenda missing its fundamentally strategic and political nature. The third, and perhaps most significant, obstacle is opposition in some quarters to a two-state solution in practice. This opposition expresses itself in two separate phenomena occurring in many societies: those who are opposed to a two-state solution in theory, and those who are for it in theory but against the actual compromises that would be required to produce it as a reality. Neither of these perspectives promote support for state-building. In addition it should be recognized that there are domestic Palestinian political forces that are in favor of a two-state solution but for narrow reasons not supportive of the state-building program, and that this is a serious political obstacle on the ground. The best way to overcome domestic Palestinian obstacles, and almost all political opposition, is through the success of the program itself. Again I stress, the answer to almost all of the political obstacles to the implementation of the state-building program is the success of the program itself. In its success lies its credibility, effectuality, and domestic and international base of support.


Therefore, the role of the international community should be to focus as much as possible on supporting state-building in anticipation of the resumption of a robust diplomatic process some time in the future. Renewed negotiations do not appear to be imminent given the domestic political circumstances within Israel, the United States and among the Palestinians. The international community is therefore faced with a conundrum, for which the Palestinians have a solution. The world cannot walk away from this conflict because of its unique political and symbolic resonance and its strategic importance. As ordinary citizens around the Arab world are rising to assert their rights and demand transparency, accountability and good governance, it is remarkable that perhaps the most ambitious Arab political reform project is being conducted by a people living under occupation and without citizenship of any kind. Freedom and democracy cannot come to the Middle East without resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and ending the occupation that began in 1967 by creating a viable, sovereign and independent Palestinian state to live alongside Israel in peace and security. It is exceptionally important that it is the Palestinians themselves who are leading the way in laying the groundwork for this solution by building the framework of their state in spite of the occupation, but they require significant international support in order to succeed. The political obstacles to implementing the state-building project I have outlined here need to be clearly recognized and systematically overcome in order to defend the real, practical viability of the realization of a two-state solution in the foreseeable future. The answer to this is precisely the success of the state-building program in practice, which requires international assistance. What is at stake in supporting the state-building program may well be nothing less than the fate of the two-state solution, which is the only plausible means of ending the conflict and achieving peace.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017