On Salam Fayyad, South Africa and prospects for peace

In spite of important differences between Israel and South Africa, there is a parallel in the reluctance to make that leap of faith to a new order.

January 25, 2011 22:34
4 minute read.
PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad

Salam Fayyad with kaffiyeh kafiyeh 311 AP. (photo credit: AP)


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Iam an American and son of German Holocaust survivors. For most of my life, the narrative of Israel was that of a beleaguered nation seeking acceptance by hostile neighbors. The Six Day War did nothing to change this. Israel held the moral high ground, in spite of the widespread displacement of Arabs. There was speculation that it would trade land for peace.

Jordan’s relinquishing of the West Bank was a watershed event, and focused attention on the lack of suitable Palestinian governance that would enable Israel to forge a lasting peace. That it sought accommodation with Yasser Arafat in spite of his less-than-enlightened leadership is testament to its deep desire for peace. Frustration over a seeming lack of progress in the wake of negotiations and territorial withdrawal is understandable.

But Palestinian institutions have changed, and now display much greater levels of security and prosperity than in the past. Resistance to Israel is more peaceful, and this has yielded dividends in international legitimacy.

MUCH OF this change is the result of new Palestinian leadership. I have known Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad for many years. We met as graduate students in Austin, Texas in 1980.

Fayyad showed sensitivity to the Jewish experience, including the Holocaust. He looked forward to the day Israelis and Palestinians could prosper together, but also recognized the need to develop Palestinian governance.

At that time, the economics department of the University of Texas was known for its emphasis on institutions and their importance for political and economic development. These ideas had been falling out of favor after the Reagan revolution, with its more hard-nosed embrace of markets and individual responsibility. Unimpressive Israeli and American economic performance was a backdrop to that time, and Fayyad was drawn to the more market- oriented approaches to economic policy. He went on to work for the relatively conservative International Monetary Fund in Washington before returning to the Middle East.

Some institutional economists in Austin in the 1980s were at pains to emphasize the importance of fairness. Social, political and economic progress is jeopardized if fundamental tenets of fairness are not evident. The old institutional school had its roots in the American progressive movement and its many efforts to improve welfare for lower- and working-class Americans. Social justice is not always easy to define, and may be especially problematic to establish when two parties in conflict – such as Jews and Palestinians – have been victimized. It helps if both sides have a vision for social justice.

The Palestinian Authority accepts a two-state solution. This helps ensure the long-term survival of Israel with a Jewish character as long as there is a limited right of return. The PA has also shown some flexibility on final borders. But there is no clear idea of what Israel proposes as a fair dispensation, and patience on this matter is dissipating in the international community. Some fear the 43-year occupation will be extended indefinitely.

Former president Jimmy Carter and others have compared Israel and its occupation of Palestinian territory to apartheid. It is not. I lived and taught in Johannesburg in the mid-1980s, and there are important differences. South Africa was never about two peoples and one land, as with Israelis and Palestinians.

It was about one national identity, South African, with an unjust social dispensation. It is unfortunate that many critics of Israel fail to see this fundamental difference.

South African whites realized that apartheid was untenable in the long run. They also knew it was unethical. But many whites were convinced the alternative was worse. Real democracy, it was thought, would bring one man, one vote. So far the transition away from apartheid has been relatively benign, and many fears have not materialized, although Zimbabwe is another story.

IN SPITE of important differences between Israel and South Africa, there is a parallel in the reluctance to make that leap of faith to a new order. Israelis are asked to trade threats they know for ones that are more uncertain. Some say Israel is more committed to settlements than peace, but this is not clear. Borders and Jerusalem are real issues, and not to be minimized. But the most important stumbling blocks on the road to peace may now be the Israeli political structure and social psychology, instead of Palestinian institutions or the lack thereof. Israel has been unable to show leadership in the drive toward peace. It is not obvious what will break the logjam, but for now my attention has turned from Palestinian to Israeli institutions and policies.

The writer is Joseph M. Long Chair in Health Care Management and professor of economics at the Eberhardt School of Business and Thomas J. Long School of Pharmacy and Health Sciences at the University of the Pacific in California.

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