Paul Pillar

The China Strategy in the West Bank

Today's New York Times front page has an article by Ethan Bronner, titled "Outline of State Begins to Emerge in the West Bank," describing how many of the features of ordinary life, from traffic tickets to functioning movie theaters, are apparent in that portion of the occupied Palestinian territories.  And according to the International Monetary Fund, economic activity in the West Bank in the first quarter of this year represented an 11 percent increase over the same period in the previous year.  The picture is one of West Bank Palestinians enjoying themselves.  The Times includes a photograph, with a Disneyland-in-Samaria quality, of a gaily decorated tourist tram rolling through the streets of Nablus.  The overall impression is of a West Bank administration that, as the article puts it, "has begun to resemble, tentatively, a functioning state."  This is all consistent with the Israeli strategy--and surface impressions would seem to suggest the strategy is succeeding--of contrasting life under a compliant Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad with life in Gaza under the despised and ostracized Hamas.  

The biggest problem with this strategy always has been, and still is, that the unpleasant reality of the Gaza Strip will not go away.  Neither will Hamas, which retains plenty of capability to be a spoiler.  As George Mitchell, the administration's point man on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, should have learned in his earlier successful stint as mediator for Northern Ireland, success requires dealing with all parties that have an impact and a claim to a political role, even ones that have used terrorism.

Even if the Gaza problem could be set aside, the Israeli strategy in the West Bank is likely to fail.  Or rather, it will fail as long as it is coupled with the other elements of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.  This raises the issue of what Binyamin Netanyahu really has had in mind ever since he let the words "two-state solution" leave his mouth.  All the other indications from his government, involving not only the continuing realities of occupation but also retention of an Israeli security presence in the Jordan River valley, restrictions on Palestinian forces, etc.--not to mention the implications of Israeli settlements--suggest that he has something in mind markedly less than what most of us in the post-Westphalian nation-state system think of as a state.  He probably is thinking of something that begins "to resemble, tentatively, a functioning state."  He clearly does not have in mind what usually is considered the single most important defining characteristic of a state: a government having a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within its territory.

The closest precedents for what his government probably envisions are the bantustans that the apartheid-era National Party created in South Africa.  The South African government declared several of the bantustans to be independent states--a supposed independence that no one else in the international community recognized.

In important respects another precedent is China since the reforms of Deng Xiaoping.  The Chinese people are kept sufficiently happy by their upward economic trajectory and by some loosening of the control over their lives--extending even to the political realm in the form of contested elections at the local level--that they do not cause much ruckus.  They are too busy enjoying life and trying to get rich to be bothered by the fact that they still live under a dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party.

The China strategy seems to have succeeded in China, so far.  But for several reasons it is unlikely to succeed for long in the West Bank.  One is that it is not clear that it ultimately will succeed even in China.  How long can a vibrant economy with the unavoidable creation of independent centers of power coexist with a political dictatorship?  As Zhou Enlai said when asked about the impact of the French Revolution, it's too early to tell.

Other reasons are more specific to the West Bank.  One is that the circumstances of size, resources, and continued Israeli restrictions on movement and commerce make it unlikely that the West Bank can sustain anything like the meteoric growth that China has sustained for the past three decades.  Another is that there are too many things (and not just Hamas) that can upset the happy applecart--such as some security incident, followed by the usual hair-trigger Israeli response.  The placid picture of people frolicking in Nablus could change very rapidly.  Yet another reason is that nationalist aspiration works in the opposite direction from the way it works in China.  People there take pride in how their government, dictatorial though it is, has used its power and control to make China a major player, from staging the Olympics to enlarging its military power.  People in the West Bank will have no opportunity to beam at any assertion of Palestinian power, and they take no pride in what the ultimate controller of their lives--i.e., Israel--does with its power.