U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, today delivered the following opening statement during the panel's hearing entitled "Chronic Kleptocracy: Corruption within the Palestinian Political Establishment"
There was a moment in the recent past when corruption may have actually prevented a breakthrough moment in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. At that moment, but for the fact that one of the leaders of the two peoples was compromised by his own alleged misdeeds catching up to him, things could have turned out very differently.
Unfortunately, that leader was Ehud Olmert, Israel's then Prime Minister who, because of impending corruption charges, had announced his intention not to seek re-election only two months before putting Israel's third comprehensive peace plan on the table for the Palestinians. The other two peace plans were both offered by current Defense Minister and once-Prime Minister Ehud Barak. And the problem in all three cases is that the Israeli Prime Minister was, politically speaking, a very lame-duck. Thus for the Palestinians, saying "yes," or even "yes but" would have meant accepting in principle all the down-sides that a compromise would entail, but without having secured any of the benefits, as that would then depend on the outlook of the next Israeli prime minister.
This decision--not to accept--is based on an understandable political calculus, but for the Palestinians, it has also been a losing strategy. Avoiding domestic political risk--the consistent choice of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas--has been a path which has kept him in office but has not achieved any of the Palestinian people's legitimate goals. And let's be very clear, it is the failure of the Palestinians to say yes that has prevented them from having a state of their own; not settlements, not the fence, not the Israel Defense Forces, not the Israeli right, not Prime Minister Netanyahu and not anything else. With a bit more courage from their leaders, the Palestinians could well be getting ready to celebrate their 10th Independence Day.
Corruption in the Palestinian Authority (PA), is unquestionably serious and in some areas debilitating. But for the Palestinians, it has not been the deciding factor between ongoing conflict or peace, or at least not in the way most people might expect.
I'm reminded of a funny story I was told about an important negotiating session with all the Israeli and Palestinian principals. One of the Palestinians in the room, who I will not name-- I'll just call him "Abu A"--launched into a furious diatribe about Israeli settlement activity and construction of the security barrier, particularly around Jerusalem.
After a moment, in response, the Israeli Prime Minister asked, simply and with a mischievous smile, "Are you sure you want us to stop ALL the construction?" The room was then filled with snickers and badly-suppressed laughter. It was well-known among all those present that the Palestinian advocate, who had been holding forth vehemently, had a major financial interest in the Palestinian company that was selling cement that was being used for both the settlements and the security barrier the Israelis were constructing in the Jerusalem area.
For ordinary Palestinians, the situation is rather more serious, in that he or she realistically has only two viable political options: radical, violent and Islamist Hamas or feckless, corrupt Fatah. It's not much of a choice and it is thus no surprise that so many Palestinians have given up on their political system altogether.
But for us, as an interested outside party and friend to both sides of the conflict, our interests in the question of corruption are limited to three: One, in so much as the one of the two Palestinian political factions that favors peace, and claims to be willing to accept a negotiated settlement of the conflict, is compromised--which is to say, corrupt--in the eyes of the Palestinian people, we should be concerned about the possibility that the political option for peace they favor will be likewise undermined. Happily, polling results for nearly a decade show little change in Palestinian's preference for a two-state solution. Less happily, at the same time, an overwhelming majority of Palestinians have concluded that such an outcome is also extremely unlikely.
Two, as a major donor to the Palestinians we need to be concerned that our aid will be construed as support for a corrupt regime. This a problem not just with the Palestinians but likewise in many other places of much greater strategic import, like Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. The fact is, there is no easy answer for this question. We deal with corrupt governments out of necessity, because we need a partner with which to work on problems that effect our national interests and national security. Inevitably, dealing with rotten governments taints our reputation and, in the long-term, jeopardizes our interests. Unfortunately, the only thing worse than dealing with rotten governments is trying to preserve or advance our interests should we ignore them.
Three, we need to ensure that our assistance programs are achieving the goals we set. If our intention is to improve school attendance or decrease infant mortality or provide potable water and sanitation, then that's what the programs have to do. If they unintentionally wind up enriching loathsome regime figures and boosting the power of people we dislike, then we have a hard choice to make: is our support for the people outweighed by the unintended and undesirable consequences that flow? Obviously, I'm not talking about outright corruption, waste or fraud in our own aid programs--such outcomes are always unacceptable and not to be tolerated. I'm referring to the undesirable consequences of say, buying concrete from the wrong Palestinian big wig.
Finally, we need to keep our eyes on the big picture, on where our strategic interests lie. Corruption is bad. Corruption is bad here, corruption is bad in the PA, corruption is bad everywhere. We can all stipulate to that. It's agreed. We don't like it.
Once that question is settled, then what? How do we move forward toward a peace that enables Israel to remain secure as both a democratic and Jewish state, and for the Palestinians to have a national homeland of their own that poses no threat to others? That's the central question and the point from which our assessments about the seriousness of corruption must begin.