A Palestinian laborer works on a construction site in the new Palestinian town dubbed Rawabi or "The Hills", near the West Bank city of Ramallah.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last September I visited the new Palestinian city of Rawabi in the West Bank as it prepared to welcome its first residents.
This impressive urban development outside Ramallah, billed as the “first new Palestinian city in 1,000 years,” and slated to eventually house some 40,000 people, is largely the vision and work of Palestinian- American businessman Bashar al-Masri.
Interviewing Masri, it was no surprise to hear him blame years of delays in completing the project primarily on the well-reported obstacles he encountered from successive Israeli governments in getting the necessary permits to move ahead.
I was taken aback though by the criticism he also lobbied at the Palestinian Authority, which he said had not been particularly cooperative in developing Rawabi, failing to provide it with even some of the basic services given to other West Bank municipalities.
Rawabi should have been a showpiece project nurtured by the PA, as a provider of thousands of jobs and homes for West Bankers, as well as serving as a magnet for the Palestinian professional classes both here and abroad vital to the project of nature-building.
But as a meticulously managed, privately funded undertaking, it no doubt lacked the opportunities for easy graft, bureaucratic muscle-flexing and political showboating provided by lesser projects far more appealing to a corrupt Palestinian leadership.
I thought of Rawabi on reading about the new Palestinian Museum in Bir Zeit that officially opened last week in a beautiful, new $24 million building – with no exhibits on display. An exhibition planned for the opening was canceled when the museum’s original director, east Jerusalem gallery owner Jack Persekian, was unceremoniously ousted by its board with little explanation.
Palestinian businessman and human rights activist Sam Bahour told The New York Times the decision to open the empty museum without any “substance” on display was “shocking.”
Really though, is there any more perfect metaphor in brick-and-mortar for the Palestinian statehood effort than this vacant monument on a hill outside Ramallah? Especially when accompanied by the de rigueur opening ceremony featuring sclerotic PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his cronies, attended on by the usual diplomatic cheering section? Building a real national cultural institution – like a real nation – takes patience, probity, political flexibility and plenty of disciplined hard work, not posturing and petty turf wars. In all the years I’ve reported on the Palestinians, their only top official who genuinely displayed those qualities was Salam Fayyad – who attained the premiership in 2007 primarily due to pressure from the international community, and was subsequently left hanging when a PA leadership threatened by his reforms forced him out in 2013.
Instead of real state-building, too many Palestinians – cheered on by their amen-corner here and abroad – have busied themselves with futile showboating at the United Nations, pointless appeals to the International Criminal Court, self-defeating BDS campaigns that end up mainly hurting ordinary West Bankers, and anti-Israeli incitement that breeds senseless acts of violent “resistance” which ultimately only serve to strengthen radical Islamist elements.
Meanwhile, the US, European Union and UN continue to try and pressure Israel into making preliminary concessions for a diplomatic process that at the present time of regional turmoil – and with the current constellation of leadership in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Washington – has no chance of succeeding, or even advancing significantly.
There’s no better example of this then the French peace conference planned to proceed without any Israeli or Palestinian participation, a virtual diplomatic equivalent of the empty museum at Bir Zeit, all showy exterior with no underlying substance.
With the fading Abbas nearing the end of his futile tenure, the PA’s foreign funders in the US and Europe would make better use of their leverage at this time to apply real pressure on the Palestinians to usher in a younger, more dynamic, less corrupt, and genuinely moderate leadership – one that perhaps that will dedicate itself to laying the foundations of a viable Palestinian nation ready to live in real peace beside a Jewish state, and to offer its own people more than just yet another failed Arab nation.
Before the world expends even more efforts on the Palestinian national project – and asks Israelis to take real risks in allowing that to happen – it’s time to first demand exactly what will be the content of that still empty Palestinian museum.
Or, as scholar Foud Ajami put it in The Dream Palace of the Arabs, his intellectual study of the faltering dreams of modern Arab nationalism across the Middle East: “As the world batters the modern Arab inheritance, the rhetorical need for anti-Zionism grows. But there rises, too, the recognition that it is time for the imagination to steal away from Israel and to look at the Arab reality, to behold its own view of the kind of the world the Arabs want for themselves.”
Calev Ben-David is the political/diplomatic correspondent for IBA English TV News.
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