BERNARD LEWIS, THE well-known British Middle East scholar, once explained the difference between corruption in the West and corruption in the Middle East.
In the US, Lewis said, you first have to make a lot of money, like Rockefeller or Kennedy, with that money you conduct an election campaign and then you win control over the government. In the Middle East, the process goes in the opposite direction. First of all you grab control of the country, like Gaddafi in Libya, Ben Ali in Tunis, Mubarak in Egypt or Saddam Hussein in Iraq; once in power, you make a lot of money.
And in Israel? he was asked. In Israel, he answered, they’ve found a way to combine the two.
And the Palestinians? Even a quick glance at the government in Ramallah will reveal that the Palestinians have adopted, more or less, the Middle Eastern approach.
In the past, much was made of Yasser Arafat’s private accounts and the millions that he had given his wife, Suha. It was clear that Arafat controlled the Fatah, later the PLO and then the Palestinian Authority as if they were his private plantation.
About a year ago, after a wave of whispers and rumors of corruption had swept the Palestinian Authority, President Mahmoud Abbas declared that he was establishing a new office in Ramallah, a comptroller of sorts, to be known as the “Committee to Eradicate Corruption.” Rafiq Natshe, a Fatah veteran and former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, was appointed to head the new unit.
Recently, after journalists from the Palestinian news service, Ma’an, demanded that the committee reveal names and details about suspects, the committee revealed that it is investigating four government ministers, including, most prominently, Minister of the Economy Hassan Abu-Libdah (who is incidentally responsible for the campaign to boycott products from the Israeli settlements).
The charges against him stem from the period before he became a minister and was the director general of the Palestinian stock market in Nablus. He is being investigated with regard to falsification and stock manipulation.
The other suspects include the Agriculture, Health and Justice ministers.
There aren’t any indictments yet – and the Palestinian public is doubtful that there every will be any. At most, common wisdom holds, a minister or two will have to resign.
ALLEGATIONS OF CORRUPTION concerning Mohammed Dahlan, a prominent member of the Fatah leadership, first came to the public’s attention a few months ago. Dahlan, who was once the strong man in the security apparatus in Gaza, fled Gaza with his men in 2007 as Hamas took power.
He moved to Ramallah; gradually it became apparent to all that he had become enormously wealthy. He was involved in a series of business deals with Mohammed Rashid, who had been Arafat’s financial adviser and his confidant when the PLO headquarters were in Lebanon. Rashid had been responsible for the PA’s government companies and had been responsible for the casino in Jericho, which brought a fortune into the PA.
Rumors had been circulating in Ramallah for years about Dahlan’s and Rashid’s partnerships in ventures in Jordan, North Africa and the Persian Gulf. Recently, Dahlan had fallen out of favor with Abbas, who accused Dahlan of undermining him. Several months ago, Dahlan published several articles in the Palestinian media, criticizing Abbas’s policies; he was called in for clarifications and was summarily expelled from the PLO Central Committee.
Dahlan has been forced to leave Ramallah, with Abbas threatening to expose damaging information about him. In turn, Dahlan, who spends most of his time in Cairo and Amman, has let it be known that he, too, can open his mouth and provide similarly damaging information about Abbas.
Things seem to have settled down since then. Common wisdom on every street corner in Ramallah has it that the potentially damaging information that Dahlan and Abbas have on each other – and the fact that both of them are willing to use it – is keeping both of them quiet.
The story is important because of its social and political significance. Palestinian public opinion is regularly full of countless rumors and gossip about all the leaders, who are all reputed to be little more than corrupt thieves.
In response to each new wave of rumors, the PA establishes a committee of inquiry – and that is the end of that. These committees of inquiry are established solely in order to bury the stories. And with regard to Dahlan, it wasn’t even necessary to establish a committee – the mutual threats between him and Abbas did the job quite well.
WHILE IN ISRAEL, A SIGNIFIcant number of cabinet ministers and other senior officials have made their way to prison, in the PA, not even one senior official has ever been tried or sent to prison. Here and there, one or two officials, including Jawad Ghosein, head of the PLO treasury, have been arrested and briefly interrogated.
But nothing more.
Anyone with any complaint or information about corruption may turn to the anti-corruption committee, which is then supposed to investigate and report to Abbas himself.
Every so often, the committee announces to Palestinian media that it is working intensely and has achieved impressive results. In one such press release a few months ago, the committee stated, “We have returned to the PA thousands of dunams of land that had been illegally taken over by various individuals and we have returned millions of dollars to the PA treasury.” In another such announcement, the committee declared that it has been aided by Palestinian embassies throughout the world in its efforts to investigate ex-pat Palestinians who have been involved in financial corruption.
“We could not bring the suspects to Ramallah for investigation, because we do not have extradition agreements with foreign countries,” the committee explained.
But the Committee to Eradicate Corruption never provided any details about the corruption or the name of even one suspect.
It is thus fairly clear that these meaningless announcements were intended merely to assuage the public.
In the past, Arafat used the money he accumulated for political purposes: to bribe and to buy support. He didn’t enjoy the money in his private life – he didn’t live in fancy houses and he often slept in his office; his lifestyle was Spartan, almost monastic. He wore old army fatigues, ate simple meals and even though he had millions of dollars in bank accounts on his name, he almost never bought anything for his personal use.
But the same cannot be said for the people around Arafat. They enjoyed the money that he gave them. And biographies about Arafat reveal that he actually loved corrupting those people who surrounded him, so that he could highlight how uncorrupt and upstanding he was and so that everyone could see that in contrast to other leaders, he, and only he, was clean.
The system that Arafat instigated in the PLO encouraged corruption. He would allocate a specific sum of money to each of the heads of the departments, and that official was responsible for enlisting their personnel and paying them as they saw fit. In the beginning, the PA operated in the same way. The head of the security apparatus, for example, would be allocated a certain budget, which he would spend as he saw fit on activities, equipment and salaries; there was little or no oversight.
The police officers received their salaries in envelopes, in cash payments, directly from their superior officers, instead of direct deposits into their bank accounts.
Gradually, the system changed, primarily as a result of pressure from the countries that were contributing money to the PA. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad completed the process of reorganization and created order in the Palestinian bureaucracy. The situation today may still not be perfect, but there’s no doubt that the corruption has decreased.
Yet even today, the comptroller’s office and the legal system in the PA are very weak and barely function, The gossip and rumors about corruption among senior Palestinian officials does terrible damage to the Palestinian sense of solidarity and to the national morale. The lack of confidence in their leaders is especially striking given the current economic difficulties.
Despite all the improvements, the economic situation in the territories is still very bad.
Unemployment is high, there are almost no investments, and no one is building any new factories or industries. No one wants to invest in an unstable political and security environment.
The Palestinian public looks across the border with Israel and sees a thriving economy.
The average yearly income in the West Bank and Gaza is about $3,000 – in Israel, it’s close to $30,000. That’s ten times higher. And the PA doesn’t always pay even the lowly salaries – about $250 a month – of teachers and police officers. Last June, the Palestinian Finance Minister announced that he would pay only half of the salaries owed, because the Arab countries had not transferred the funds they had promised and so there was not enough money in the treasury to pay full salaries.
Every day, the Palestinian press publishes two or more pages of translations from the Israeli press, so they see how Israel deals with government corruption. They see and hear about a former prime minister who is now on trial, and about a former president who has been convicted and sentenced to prison because he took advantage of his position and authority for sex. The Palestinians are frustrated and bitter – and that certainly is not helping them in their struggle for recognition and establishment of their state.
“Who needs a state with leaders who only want to steal?” a Palestinian colleague commented recently. He may not represent the majority of the Palestinian public, but he’s not alone in his thoughts. Similar comments can be heard throughout Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron and Gaza. •