Corruption appears to be far worse in Palestine than in Israel. In Palestine, large-scale corruption was imported along with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 1994, i.e., with the attempt by both parties to resolve the Palestinian issue, and it has flourished under conditions of both political progress and outright conflict. In Israel, the occupation has spawned corruption.
To be fair, power corrupts whether in Israel, Palestine or anywhere else. But our two societies are in worse shape than most, and we must ask why.
One factor both societies have in common is violence. In Israel, the violence inevitably spawned by the occupation has crept into all walks of society, where it in turn nurtures organized crime. In Palestine, the decision more than three years ago to rely on violence as a means of furthering the Palestinian cause against Israel has generated Israeli counter-violence which has weakened Palestinian societal institutions like the police.
Yasser Arafat's regime also appears to have encouraged or tolerated, to various degrees, forms of anarchy throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The result, at least in some areas, is rule by gangs and warlords; in others, it is at times rule by no one. Even before that, with the advent of the Oslo process, Israel mistakenly indicated to Arafat that it would tolerate compromises in the rule of law in the Palestinian Authority if that was the price to be paid for Palestinians delivering security to Israel. In other words, we knew we were importing corruption. We ended up with neither rule of law in Palestine nor security in Israel.
Israel retains its societal mechanisms for fighting corruption: the police, the attorney general, the ministry of justice, an admirable court system, and a free press. In an atmosphere of conflict, suicide bombings, and violence imported from the occupation, they labor under extremely trying circumstances. The current discussion--in public and among law-enforcement officials--regarding the possible indictment of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is a sign that the system still works. What is missing--at least until some sort of modus vivendi is found with the Palestinians--is a vastly reinforced police force that is equipped to deal simultaneously with every crime from sex slavery and family and school violence to extortion and white collar violations.
This is doable, if courageous decisions are made to exploit the current dramatic reduction in conventional military threats against Israel and reduce yet further the military budget. This requires a recognition at the highest level--where unfortunately some of the corruption resides--that crime and corruption are themselves a danger to the country's security, and that more resources, both qualitative and quantitative, must be devoted to internal law and order.
Obviously, one way to reduce part of the corruption on both sides is to end the occupation. The only way to do this today appears to be through unilateral steps. These may not end the violence, but they will certainly reduce the more damaging aspects of negative interaction between the two societies. As for the corruption that appears to be endemic to Arafat's regime, the efforts of a single just man, Minister of Finance Salam Fayyad, have been salutary at the governmental level. But they apparently cannot touch Arafat himself, not to mention those anarchic areas of Palestinian life where government has ceased to function.
The Islamists, led by Hamas, whose popularity and influence are growing, have their own solutions to problems of corruption. But if they take power, not only will Palestinian society pay a heavy price in restriction of democracy and individual freedoms. Israel will find it difficult to coexist under any circumstances with a Palestinian Islamist neighbor.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
Let's be frank: corruption is found the world over. Where corruption makes world headlines, however, is in those parts of the world where there is intense international scrutiny, and especially in regions where accusations of corruption are used for political machinations. This is certainly the case in Israel and Palestine. Added to the mix is the fact that Israel and Palestine collectively receive an immense amount of foreign aid per capita. Donor countries are obviously keen on preventing the misuse and squandering of their funds.
The first Palestinian government or authority is only ten years old, but that short life span has been characterized by an inordinate amount of discussion and debate over the issue of corruption and reform. This focus comes from three directions: Palestinian watchdogs and governmental individuals and organizations, the donors and international community, and finally, Israel.
The issue of corruption was first raised in Palestine in 1995 when the Palestinian comptroller evaluated the performance of different ministries in the Palestinian Authority and described specific irregularities. The Palestinian Legislative Council then followed up with its infamous "corruption report" which offered a thorough and detailed evaluation, indicating weaknesses, malfunction, and sometimes outright fraud. This report was widely published and debated in forums, newspapers and other public venues. In the end, the open public debate led to the resignation of that cabinet and a reshuffle--although the changes did not necessarily allow for serious reform and correction of the problems that had been reviewed by the Legislative Council.
Later, quiet but efficient pressure began to come from the donor community, particularly from Europe. This pressure was doled out in a constructive manner, to try to convince the Palestinian Authority to initiate a reform process. The big push came only when the United States adopted a pointed negative political attitude towards the Palestinian Authority and began to promote the idea of "regime change" in Palestine. The United States then began to use the issue of corruption as a tool with which to attack the Palestinian Authority, thus manipulating calls for reform in order to bring about political change. The Americans had a set political agenda and they were ready to use any means, including the case for reform, to pursue that agenda. The most cynical analysis would point today to the ongoing allegations of corruption against high-ranking members of the Israeli government and the deafening silence from the international community on those charges.
All of these factors materialized in the now-famous speech of President Yasser Arafat before the Legislative Council in May 2002. In that speech, the president admitted mistakes, took responsibility for them, and promised change in the future. Then he ordered a cabinet reshuffle that included new faces. One outcome of this new cabinet was the "one hundred day program for reform" and a ministerial reform committee that produced some positive results.
Still, the charge of corruption remains a major means of "managing" this political conflict on the part of the Americans and Israelis. Just look at the issue of elections. In his important June 2002 policy speech, President George W. Bush declared that Palestinian elections would be held in six months. His motives were to counteract a successful Israeli campaign of discrediting the Palestinian Authority by restoring the confidence of the Palestinian public. Not knowing enough about Palestinian internal affairs, the Americans assumed that elections would also lead to a change in the Palestinian leadership, thus furthering their own stated interests. It was not long before Israel advised the US that elections would only renew the leadership of President Arafat and suddenly, the Americans were opposing their own policy.
Palestinians have not been able to ignore this manipulation of what, for them, is a real and urgent concern. It is very interesting to note that even as the United States and Israel have used the issue of reform to further their own political interests, Palestinians have pursued a reform agenda on their own terms as a means of enhancing and improving the political position of the Palestinian Authority and their leadership, for the benefit of both the Palestinian public and the international community. For Palestinians, reform has been a means of showing faith in their chosen leaders.
The conclusion here is that different parties approach corruption in different ways. Some of them, including Israel and the United States, have been manipulating the issue of corruption and its solutions in order to pursue specific political agendas, while others, among them Palestinian groups in power (such as the Legislative Council and certain political figures), the Palestinian opposition and local civil society, European Union bodies and independent organizations, have approached the issue of corruption and reform with a genuine reform agenda.
A great deal has been achieved in the Palestinian Authority to arrive at a nearly complete end to financial corruption and a fruitful and promising process of reforming other aspects of the judiciary and the civil service. Unfortunately, this process has been stunted by the continuation of Israel's reoccupation of Palestinian cities and the subsequent economic deterioration resulting from Israel's collective punishment.
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is minister of labor in the Palestinian government and for many years prior was featured in the press as a political analyst.
The day businessman David Apel was indicted for, among other things, bribing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Member of Knesset Michael Eitan was one of the few political personalities from the coalition who agreed to be interviewed on the subject. Eitan told TV viewers: "That's the way it is here; when a right wing prime minister is suspected of corruption the opposing camp is up in arms--and vice versa".
Thus Eitan, in a single sentence, captured the total politicization of Israel's normative system, along with the unbreakable link between it and the occupation. The "camp", after all, is defined first and foremost on the basis of its attitude toward the occupation or the solution it prefers for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All the rest is a byproduct of this association, including the attitude toward corruption.
This politicization has fouled all objective norms for assessing the behavior of elected officials and public figures. Within the camp, tribal style, the rule is to exonerate anyone who has strayed from the path of righteousness and to demand only the heads of those in the opposing camp. Even now, when suspicions concerning Sharon's behavior are piling up daily, only the weak political opposition is calling upon the prime minister to provide clear answers. The politicians in his own camp, whose fate depends on his, are silent--as are those who elected him. They are more frightened of transferring power to the "enemy camp" than of the corruption that threatens Israeli society. Thus do money and power walk hand in hand, unfettered, as long as they take the political path supported by the majority. What's a "Greek island"--one of the cases in which the names of Sharon and his deputy, Ehud Olmert, are mentioned as recipients of bribes--against the opportunity to prevent a weakened prime minister from removing a single illegal outpost?
This is not the way to fight corruption, but rather to perpetuate it. Pretty soon we can replace the Magen David (Star of David) on the national flag with a yellow banana.
The Israeli collective memory still focuses on the resignation of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin from his first government in 1977 after it was revealed that his wife maintained an illegal dollar account in an American bank. That kind of reaction is unthinkable today. In the late 1980s tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets under the slogan "we're fed up with crooks." Then, the public reaction to corruption led to a change in the electoral system, which also failed. But today there are no such demonstrations. Everything goes: straw non-governmental organizations that bankroll election campaigns; vote buying; and even an attempt by a businessman to purchase a Greek island with the help of politicians. The prevailing public mood holds that everyone is corrupt--hence those in power should at least be "our crooks". For their part, the ruling circles exploit the security situation and the public's fear of terrorism and fabricate non-accountable modes of governance.
One factor abetting this atmosphere is the sectoral nature of Israeli society. Instead of a demanding civil society, we have interest groups. The public's assets are not considered as deposits held on account for services rendered to it, but rather as "catch as catch can" booty for specific interest groups. Like soldiers who conquer a village and loot its TV sets, anyone who takes power pillages whatever assets he/she finds. The public, for its part, is preoccupied with an existential struggle to survive, paralyzed by fear of terrorism and groaning under the yoke of a collapsing economy--itself a direct consequence of the ongoing occupation. Under these circumstances, it has neither the strength nor the capacity to demand transparency and accountability from the government.
Thus does the public cultivate, with its own hands, the fertile soil for the growth of corruption. The unemployed Israeli, worried sick about his/her son who is serving in the territories and afraid to get on a bus, has a hard time delving into the details of the case of Cyril Kern and the money he gave the prime minister, and has long forgotten the election bribery cases that implicated MK Naomi Blumenthal.
Midst these bewildering complications, the media plays a strange role. Corruption cases grab the front-page headlines and thousands of words are written and spoken daily about them. So what? The media is in any case suspect of left wing sympathies, of giving expression to the Palestinian narrative--and the public doesn't really believe what it reads and hears. Corruption becomes a drama that sells newspapers, and the contents of the front pages are treated like gossip columns.
No wonder so many are dreaming of a strong leader who'll restore order. Some are even warning that this is exactly the kind of soil in which fascism thrives.
Lily Galili is a senior writer at Ha'aretz newspaper.
bitterlemons: How has the issue of corruption shaped the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?
Jawad Saleh: In fact, it has shaped not the conflict, but our conception of "peace". From the beginning, when Palestinians and Israelis crafted the Oslo agreement and commenced its implementation, the Israelis (with the Americans behind them) opened private accounts in Israeli banks in the name of [Palestinian President Yasser] Arafat, to which all the taxes collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinian Authority were diverted. This was the source of all our troubles concerning corruption.
bitterlemons: Why has that damaged Palestinian fiscal management?
Jawad Saleh: The Israelis thought that if Arafat was encouraged to be corrupt and to be satisfied with the money that he received [that way], he might offer the Israelis more compromises and, therefore, acquiesce to their demands.
bitterlemons: Why do Palestinians make direct links between fiscal corruption and political corruption, or the abandonment of the Palestinian cause?
Jawad Saleh: The Israelis were really helping the Palestinian Authority to be corrupt by allowing for these private banking accounts. The whole aim was to seduce the Palestinian Authority into corruption. When you are a corrupt person who is also a decision maker, you are always distracted by where you can steal money, how you can hide the theft, where you can go with it--I think that any patriot or responsible leader at any level will experience damaged efficacy and some negative ramifications just by virtue of an agenda that differs from his work.
bitterlemons: There has been a great internal focus on corruption since then. Do you think that matters have improved?
Jawad Saleh: Yes, to a certain extent. I think that [Palestinian Minister of Finance] Salam Fayyad has tackled the basics of reform in the financial sector, but he has not yet completed this task satisfactorily. For example, concerning the investments of the Palestinian Authority, he [Fayyad] has gained control of some, but we as the Palestinian Legislative Council have not yet received the complete report of all of the companies and various investments of the Palestinian Authority, whether international or public. He promised when he presented the budget of 2003 that he would have this information for us 15 days after we were to give our vote of confidence in the budget. Now one year has passed.
bitterlemons: How much does international pressure play into the process of reform?
Jawad Saleh: They set in motion the reforms, but I think that there is a resistance to true reform on the part of some who are interested in avoiding a disruption of their practices. There is a resistance to making these reforms comprehensive and total. Because of that, the problem lies with the decision makers in the Palestinian Authority.
bitterlemons: Does it help when the United States or the European Union put pressure on the Palestinian Authority?
Jawad Saleh: Not the way the Americans are doing it. When you want someone to tell you "no" then you can ask him or her in a manner that will ensure a negative response. They are bragging about it; they are talking it up. Especially Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In reality, this [approach] damages Palestinians more than it benefits or encourages them. Both sides could make better use of diplomatic procedures and processes, rather than this vulgar way of acting.
bitterlemons: What do you think that the possible indictment of Ariel Sharon would do for the issue of corruption?
Jawad Saleh: This will help a great deal, really.
Abdul Jawad Saleh is a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.
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