On recent trip to Ramallah, I spoke with a senior Fatah official and former Palestinian Authority minister about the state of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Consistent with most other Israelis and Palestinians who I'd met, he was not particularly optimistic. The conversation turned to the advances in security and economic development in the West Bank under the widely hailed leadership of Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad. I asked whether progress on political reform had tracked at all with the progress in those other areas.
After acknowledging the vastly improved security (demonstrated most definitively by the depth of cooperation between Israeli occupation authorities and Palestinian security forces) and economic growth (which is real, despite being donor driven, and thus unsustainable), the official dispatched my question with a flick of his cigarette.
"Political reform?" he smiled. "It's a joke."
One of the key problems of the U.S.'s approach to dealing with the Middle East, particularly with the Palestinians, has been to focus on persons at the expense of politics and institutions. Rather than cultivating and supporting democratic habits and procedures, U.S. policymakers have tended to identify individual leaders who could deliver various goods, usually broadly defined as "stability" or "progress," ignoring the longer-term implications of how exactly those goods were delivered.
There's a fairly strong consensus that this has been a mistake. Indeed, one of the great and least remarked-upon ironies of the post-9/11 era is the fact that the George W. Bush administration latched upon a critique of U.S. foreign policy that had theretofore been mainly the province of "leftist" academics and liberal pundits: that America's interest in stability in Middle East had led it, for decades, to support a series of authoritarian regimes who promised to keep the relative peace if we didn't bother them too much about democracy or human rights, and that the terror visited on America that fall morning was a consequence.
This idea was clearly expressed by Republican presidential candidate John McCain in a major foreign policy address in March 2008: "For decades in the greater Middle East, we had a strategy of relying on autocrats to provide order and stability," said McCain. "In the late 1970s that strategy began to unravel. The ensuing ferment in the Muslim world produced increasing instability."
Conservative strategist Bill Kristol offered a similar statement in 2005 at Tel Aviv University, at a symposium on the Bush foreign policy and neoconservatism. "We had made too many accommodations with dictators," Kristol said. "The reaction was, in many cases, leading to greater anti-Americanism, greater extremism, and greater terrorism."
Underpinning George W. Bush's "freedom agenda," this analysis -- which clearly suggests that past U.S. policy was, in part, responsible for 9/11 -- was spared classification as "America-hating," probably because, issuing from neoconservative mouths and pens, there was no one else around willing to cast such cheap aspersions. But also because, having identified the problem, the preferred neoconservative solution primarily involved America sallying forth to blow more stuff up. Much, much more stuff.
Regardless of whether Bush's "freedom agenda" was born of a genuinely progressive impulse, or just a fig leaf for the further entrenchment of U.S. power in the region, that agenda quickly collapsed, one of many casualties of the furies unleashed by the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.
But just because the Bush administration latched onto this critique as a justification for its attempt to reorder the Middle East doesn't mean it was necessarily wrong. A focus on security at the expense of democracy does generate bad consequences, and acknowledgement of this fact, by anyone, however late coming, is a good thing.
So why are we doing it again in Palestine?
The West's fixation on the goods currently being delivered in Palestine by Prime Minister Fayyad is perhaps best symbolized by the fact that Tom Friedman, the English speaking world's greatest condenser of conventional foreign policy wisdom, has awarded him with his own "-ism": Fayyadism, defined by Friedman as "a nonviolent struggle [against the Israeli occupation]... building non-corrupt transparent institutions and effective police and paramilitary units."
Appointed Prime Minister in 2007 in the wake of the Fatah-Hamas civil war, Fayyad operates without a political mandate. After Hamas' takeover of Gaza in June 2007, President Mahmoud Abbas dissolved the Fatah-Hamas unity government and, at the encouragement of the Bush administration, created an emergency government and began to rule by presidential decree, which he does to this day, effectively under a "state of emergency" that resembles Egypt's. The Palestinian Legislative Council hasn't met since 2007. National elections were scheduled for January 2010, and local elections for June, but there's no sign either will be held any time soon.
While Fayyad's accomplishments in cleaning up government corruption, promoting greater financial transparency, and clamping down on terrorism are indisputable, there is evidence that the PA's forces (U.S. trained and funded) have also directed their energies against peaceful political activities.
In August, the Ma'an News Agency reported that members of the PA General Intelligence Service attempted to quash a rally against the PA re-entering direct talks in the absence of an Israeli settlement freeze, and then assaulted field workers from the Palestinian rights group Al-Haq as they attempted to document the Intelligence Service's activities.
The most recent Freedom House survey of Palestinian civil rights and press freedom gave the PA a grade of "not free."
"While the PA parades each of its new initiatives before the media, it obstructs, manipulates and lies about what it is doing against opposition movements," says George Hale, an editor for Ma'an. "Palestinians hold protests somewhat regularly on issues like the cancelled municipal elections, and the PA security forces often break them up when they get too loud." The level of intimidation is high. According to Hale, "It's the protests that aren't happening which reveal more about the levels of freedom."
"I find it preposterous that there's transparency when the IDF arrests Palestinians but not from the PA when they arrest their own people," says Hale, who also blames international journalists "who only care about what Israel does and never hold the PA to any semblance of accountability."
Three different sources also confirmed to me that the PA has appointed a number of Salafi prayer leaders in West Bank mosques, on the condition that they direct their rhetorical fire away from the PA and Abbas' Fatah Party, and toward Fatah's political opponents, primarily Hamas.
Not only does this bargain reproduce an arrangement common to authoritarian governments in the region, where extreme conservative clerics are tolerated and supported as long as they withhold criticism of the government, it mirrors Israeli policy beginning in the 1970's, when the Israeli occupation authorities lent aid to the ministry of a little-known Sheikh named Ahmed Yassin, in the hopes that his Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood would draw support away from the secular nationalist PLO.
It worked. With the first Intifada in 1987, the now deeply entrenched Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood morphed into the Palestinian "Islamic Resistance Movement" -- Harakat al-Muqawamat al-Islamiyyah, Hamas.
Suppressing Hamas' ability to carry out violence has been a central goal of the Abbas-Fayyad government, with strong U.S. and Israeli support, as well as diminishing Hamas' political appeal through combating corruption and increasing economic opportunity. But the security service's energies have also been directed at non-violent Hamas activities, harassing and shutting down charitable groups associated with Hamas, and removing locally elected Hamas officials and schoolteachers. Having agreed to "play by the rules" and eschew violence, these activists have now found that any association with a disfavored political orientation is enough to make them targets of repression
In the absence of genuine progress toward ending the occupation however, Palestinian dissatisfaction with the PA, which is already severe, is only likely to grow. And without opportunities to express that dissatisfaction through legitimate democratic institutions and procedures, the likelihood of greater violence will grow, too -- both toward Israel and toward the PA, who increasing numbers of Palestinians see as simply managing the occupation for their Israeli bosses.
Israel's security concerns are real, and require attention. But, as with decades of privileging the flow of oil of over human rights in the Middle East, continuing to privilege Israeli security perceptions over Palestinian political realities is unlikely to lead to an outcome that makes anyone happy.
According to the former PA minister I spoke to, the storm clouds are already forming. He was getting more and more concerned about the level of unrest and hostility being directed toward the PA by his own neighbors and relatives. "If you find me with a bullet in the back of my head," he said, "you will know why."
Political freedom is not a peripheral concern in Palestine -- it is central to the U.S. goal of a functioning, viable, and democratic Palestinian state at peace with Israel. The Obama administration must not allow itself, in the interest of an illusive stability, to keep kicking the can down the road, and oversee the creation of yet another security state in the Middle East.
Matthew Duss is National Security Editor at the Center for American Progress