Avoiding a Failed Palestinian State

If the Palestinians want a state, Fatah and Hamas will have to start working together.

The focus has turned once again to restarting the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Would-be peacemakers in Washington hope the United States, over the course of the coming year, will pressure Israelis and Palestinians to make concessions and establish a Palestinian state.

Statehood for the Palestinian people may be a necessity for peace and stability in the Arab world, but creating a viable Palestine will require reconciliation between the two largest Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah. It will require a genuinely liberal, peaceful and democratic government that can stand on its own. It must also welcome representation of a wide range of political factions. The Palestinians have their work cut out for them.

A national project is not only about defined borders and a flag; it is as much about its viability. What makes a national project sustainable is a political system that relies on institutions rather than individuals. So far, Palestinian politics has been dominated by strong men. These leaders—from Yasser Arafat to Salaam Fayyad—have relied on their own personal prestige to make or unmake them as credible leaders.

Many Westerners praise Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad for attempting to create the institutions of a future Palestinian state. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman is among his biggest fans, calling his governance practices “Fayyadism.” But Fayyad's politics are that of a technocrat. His focus on the economy has shown some successes so far, and these days the Palestinian Authority is even considering reviving its pre-1948 currency: the Palestinian Pound. Tourists and tour operators have returned to Bethlehem, and the Israelis see less need for security checkpoints.

Yet Fayyad received only two percent of the Palestinian popular vote in the 2006 legislative elections, and was installed by a president, Mahmoud Abbas, who actually lost the popular vote to Hamas.

So, while the Palestinian Authority is building efficient security forces, it has done little to empower the Palestinian people. While elections have been postponed, political reforms are much needed. For instance, how much progress has the PA made in building a truly independent and impartial judiciary—the cornerstone of any democracy?

Reforms must confer more power on the legislature and less on the head of state. To represent Palestinians adequately, the PA will have to decentralize, and delegate more power to local authorities. It will also need to enact clearer rules for political parties and groups to encourage political factions to resolve their differences peacefully. Above all, Palestinians need a system in which they can all take part, not one monopolized by a single faction or a few individuals.

The current Palestinian political culture is influenced by the early patrons of the Palestinian cause. Since 1947, regional powers have interfered endlessly in Palestinian internal affairs. Middle Eastern dictators have used the Palestinian cause as a primary pretext for denying freedom to their populations, and have made various Palestinian factions into clients to advance their regional interest by proxy.

Over the years, the list has included: Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya and lately Iran. Today, for example, the Iran-backed Hamas battles the Saudi/Egyptian-backed Fatah. These authoritarian patrons have hindered the creation of a liberal, democratic Palestinian state.

After liberating themselves of these outside influences, the Palestinians must begin to stand on their own. To do so means that the Palestinians cannot rely on American support, either.

Finally, it is important to remember that the Palestinians must also unify politically. Currently, they are a divided people. The two warring factions—Fatah and Hamas—must find a way to shake hands. To do that, they must agree on coexistence with Israel.

If and when the Palestinians accept a peace treaty with Israel, they must build a state characterized by transparency, accountability and peaceful transfer of power from one government to the next.

After a century of waiting, the Palestinian people deserve a territory with a flag, a national anthem, a currency and a passport. But more importantly, they deserve a common political space in which they can determine their own destinies.