Are the Palestinians prepared for statehood?
In the aftermath of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s electoral victory on April 8, many wonder whether this is the death knell of the two-state solution. Will the long-awaited U.S. peace plan revive prospects for negotiations or will it be declared dead on arrival by Palestinian negotiators, as recently reported in the Jerusalem Post?
While these are critical questions, one issue that has largely evaded the media’s attention is gauging whether the Palestinian body politic would be ready for statehood, if and when that day ever comes.
This was a primary focus of a recent discussion between former Ambassador to Israel and Egypt Daniel Kurtzer and Salaam Fayyad, former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA), as part of a series of “Israel @70” programs sponsored by NJPAC. As a trained economist and former IMF official, Fayyad is recognized as a moderate and a competent leader. He was responsible for the internal administration of the PA before Hamas forcibly overthrew his government in Gaza.
In Fayyad’s responses to questions from Kurtzer and the audience, I was struck by how unprepared the Palestinians are for statehood.
Fayyad bemoaned that Mahmoud Abbas was entering the 14th year of a five-year elected term, but stated that it was not possible to hold new elections for the foreseeable future. With over a third of its population under Hamas’ control with its genocidal covenant to eliminate Israel and Jews, Gaza and the West Bank are separated by ideology as much as territory. Fayyad’s hope was for Palestinians to develop and convene a large council incorporating all elements of Palestinian society to reconcile differences. At best, this would take years to produce tangible results, if not remain a utopian dream.
While cooperation between the PA’s police force and Israeli security is generally good, the PA’s economy is in terrible straits. The World Bank reports that unemployment in both the West Bank and Gaza grew from 24.5 percent last year to 29.1 percent in 2019, and two out of three employable Gazan youth are unemployed. Meanwhile, the PA diverts tens of millions of dollars annually to pay “social security” to families of terrorists or to dig terror tunnels by Hamas, according to the Jerusalem Post and the Times of Israel. And the corruption of public officials is endemic.
Plans for major development initiatives have been espoused by many outside interlocuters, the most prominent being former United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair. Yet while some progress has been made, the overall picture is dismal.
That’s why the Palestinian leaders’ preemptive rejection of the still-unreleased U.S. plan, which the Jerusalem Post reports will emphasize economic investment, is discouraging.
What about the Palestinian refugees whom the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) counts as five million strong from the original 750,000 who left Israel in 1948? Three generations later, they are eligible for support by UNRWA in refugee camps mostly in surrounding states. Other than pushing for the right to return to Israel, which is fanciful, how do the Palestinians plan to integrate those who want to return to the West Bank and Gaza?
To his credit, Fayyad praised David Ben-Gurion for creating the infrastructure for an independent state under the British mandate. In fact, over 20 percent of its population by 1948 were survivors of the Holocaust. Within five years after statehood, Israel resettled the equivalent of 100 percent of its population from Arab countries in the Middle East from where the Jews fled persecution.
The British Mandate over Palestine lasted 25 years, from 1923 to 1948. It’s been over 25 years since the Oslo Accords granted autonomy for most of the Palestinian inhabitants to the PA. Unfortunately, progress in governance and economic development have been disheartening.
While headlines focus on the conflict with Israel, more attention should be paid to how the Palestinians can forge a more prosperous and hopeful future, if they ever hope to achieve their maximum potential.
Max L. Kleinman is senior consultant for Jewish Federations of North America and for New Jersey Performing Arts Center. He is also president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation. The opinions expressed in this op-ed are his own.