The decline and probable failure of Secretary John Kerry’s peace initiative was predictable. It wasn’t because of a lack of meetings. From March 6, 2013 to March 17, 2014, Secretary Kerry met Mahmoud Abbas 46 times!
With over twenty years of negotiations, we do not need more meetings. We need new Palestinian leaders.
When Sadat replaced Nasser in Egypt, a cold peace was possible between Egypt and Israel because Sadat was an Egyptian first and an Arab second. Nasser wanted to be the leader of the Arab world and he put those ambitions over his country’s economic interests. Sadat risked his life, and Egypt experienced years of diplomatic isolation from the Arab League, because he believed peace was in the national interest.
Yasser Arafat was much like Nasser. Neither of them were serious about governing. Arafat wanted to be the symbol of Palestinian nationalism. He never prepared his people for any type of peace other than Israel’s destruction. When Arafat died, Palestinians hoped for two things: find some of the money that Arafat stole and get a leader who can deliver a state.
Abbas personified the corruption of the PLO minus Arafat’s charisma. The feeling was that Abbas needed to deliver. Instead of Sadat, he became the Brezhnev of the Palestinians.
Abbas is now serving in the 10th year of what was supposed to be a four-year term. He has continued Arafat’s practice of “one-man, one-vote, once.”
Much like the Brezhnev era, the Palestinians are in stagnation both politically and economically. There has been no progress on the peace process. The economy in the West Bank has outperformed that of the Gaza Strip, but both are still very poor and dependent on donor aid.
Since the mid-1990s, the U.S. has provided over $5 billion in bilateral economic aid to the Palestinians. This is mostly in the form of Economic Support Funds (ESF) from USAID and the State Department. There is also security assistance funding from International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE). This funding trains police officers with the intent of developing rule of law in a future Palestinian state.
We have also provided assistance to Palestinian refugees, as well as their descendants, through the United Nations Relief Workers Agency (UNRWA). From 1950 through 2013, the United States provided $4.65 billion dollars in foreign assistance.
The United States and the rest of the world have an interest in having a Palestinian economy that is independent of donor aid. This will not happen until the Palestinians have their own Gorbachev.
We will know such a leader emerges when he does many of the things that Abbas refused to do. For example, Abbas, much like Brezhnev, refused to appoint his own team.
Mahmoud Abbas kept Arafat’s top negotiator Saeb Erekat. For twenty years, this man has made a living by saying, “No.” When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he replaced Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko despite the fact that Gromyko supported his rise to power. Gromyko had served in that post for 28 years. Anatoly Dobrynin was also replaced in 1986 after serving as the Soviet Ambassador to the United States for 24 years.
By replacing these two men with his own team, Gorbachev sent a message to Washington that he was not Brezhnev. It also signaled that he was in charge and that there would serious changes in foreign policy.
The United States and the European Union should now demand that new Palestinian elections be held. The Palestinian legislature has not met since 2007 and the president is serving well past his term.
If Hamas will not allow elections in Gaza, then we should demand they occur in the West Bank. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln ran for reelection. The Confederate states did not participate, but the election continued.
New elections will inject new leaders who have an incentive for change. Also we should remember that Gorbachev and his supporters could not have prevailed over hardliners had the Soviet economy not been close to collapse. It became painfully obvious that reforms were needed. Ending the Cold War was necessary to have the money to carry them out.
We need to work with our European partners to set a time limit on bilateral aid as well as aid to the refugees. The Palestinians no longer have any serious alternatives to American and European aid.
Contributions from Arab countries to the Palestinian Authority plunged from $1.8 billion in 2008 to only $600 million in 2012. Factors include the Arab Spring forcing donor countries to spend more on their own people, the global financial meltdown and concerns that contributions would be wasted.
Israel needs a two-state solution because the Palestinians have higher birthrates and Israeli Jews do not want to face the choice of having either a Jewish state or a democracy. A two-state solution will require both sides to make serious compromises.
Any final deal will likely result in Israel withdrawing from much of the West Bank. Issues such as dividing Jerusalem, access to holy sites, and security in the Jordan Valley will require the Palestinians to give up the “right of return” to Israel for Palestinian refugees. Refugees should be allowed to return to a neighboring Palestinian state.
People like Brezhnev and Abbas were able to stay in power and accomplish nothing because there was no pressure for change. Gorbachev had no choice. If a peace deal will ever be accomplished, it will require a Palestinian leader who sees no other choice but to make peace.