West Bank: Interest and self-interest

The changes the dramatic improvements on the ground are causing in West Bank society are not just temporary or cosmetic.

west bank (do not publish again) (photo credit: avi katz)
west bank (do not publish again)
(photo credit: avi katz)
AS SOMEONE WHO VISITS RAMALLAH EVERY FEW months, I am constantly struck by the new offices, residential buildings and cafés that are sprouting up everywhere.
While the prospects for a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians are endlessly debated on all sides, on-the-ground developments in the West Bank continue to move ahead at an impressive rate.
Ordinary Palestinians see the changes, and Palestinian polls show widespread support for the Palestinian Authority’s efforts to improve social services and governance. On the Israeli side, even critics of the PA, like hawkish Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon, concede that substantial progress is being made on these “bottom-up” developments.
During my recent Washington Institute study tour to Israel, the West Bank, Jordan and Egypt, both Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his reformist Prime Minister Salam Fayyad underlined specifics: Regarding social services, for example, 120 new schools have been built in the West Bank in recent years. As a result, few if any children have to attend classes operating double shifts. The PAhas also built three new hospitals and 50 new health facilities. In terms of infrastructure, 1,700 kilometers of roads have been paved or repaved. Other institutions have also shown improvement: the courts have sharply increased their workload – meaning criminals are actually being prosecuted – and tax collection has grown by 50 percent over the past year alone.
Economic progress has been equally impressive: The International Monetary Fund has confirmed that the PA’s gross national product is increasing at a rate of 8 to 9 percent annually, despite the worldwide recession. Although international aid accounts for some of this growth, Fayyad pointed out that foreign assistance earmarked for PA budgetary support actually declined from $1.8 billion in 2008 to $1.2 billion in 2009, with 2010 projections running as low as $1 billion. He added that poverty has decreased by a third over the past three years.
Significantly, too, security cooperation between the PA and Israel has created a new climate of trust, allowing Israel to reduce its military presence in the territory to half of what it was in 2000-2004, and to remove most of the 42 major manned West Bank checkpoints, facilitating Palestinian access and movement and thereby helping to boost the Palestinian economy. Indeed, top Israeli and PA security officials maintain that cooperation between the two parties is constant, not episodic. The revolving-door problem witnessed during the Arafat era – in which Palestinian terrorists were illegally released from Palestinian jails on a regular basis – is over. In addition, PA security officials reported, and Israeli security officials confirmed, that some 300 Hamas-run charities funneling money for illicit purposes have been closed and reopened under responsible, non-Hamas management. The PA now fully controls all West Bank mosques under PA geographic jurisdiction, replacing imams who promote suicide bombing and even distributing talking points for more moderate sermons.
While the above facts are indisputable, the bigger question is to what extent these developments bode well for Israeli-PA coexistence. While some in the Netanyahu government see a basis for hope, others mutter under their breath that the PA’s motives stem solely from self-interest in their fight against Hamas.
Let’s assume the critics are right. Undoubtedly, the PA and Israel share a converging interest in preventing Hamas from gaining a foothold in the West Bank, a common security interest internalized by both sides after the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007.
But, as the saying goes, there is no interest like self-interest. And the changes the dramatic improvements on the ground are causing in West Bank society are not just temporary or cosmetic, so that the joint Israeli- PAinterest against Hamas is likely to endure.
Moreover, the Palestinians are not alone in pursuing self-interest. If Israelis seek a two-state solution, it is not because Israel has been altruistically transformed into to a country of Palestinian nationalists. Israel is pursuing this program out of a belief that the alternative, millions of radicalized, stateless Palestinians posing a demographic threat to its Jewish identity, is worse.
All these positive trends do not mean that the forward march is irreversible. Could it be disrupted by a breakdown in the peace process if top-down negotiations don’t merge with bottom-up statebuilding? Yes, since the Palestinians view their efforts as dedicated state-building and, if there is no progress towards that end, they will not want to find themselves accused of merely aiding the occupation’s efficiency.
Still, the new trend creates the possibility of, even if it cannot guarantee, a better future for both peoples. The idea that economic progress facilitates political moderation runs deep in the American DNA. Israelis tend to be more skeptical. Yet they, too, have long yearned for a Palestinian entity that prioritizes quality of life issues, believing such a state will make a better neighbor. Bottom line: Despite the current deadlock in the peace process, Palestinian and Israeli self-interest could further converge in ways that yield major diplomatic dividends for both.
David Makovsky, the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, directs the institute’s project on the Middle East peace process. His most recent book is ‘Myths, Illusions and Peace,’ co-authored with former US Mideast Peace envoy Dennis Ross.