US Policy in Israel and Palestine Should Focus on Civil Society
Some believe things are quiet in the Middle East but actually they are stagnating. The governance situation in Palestinian territories is getting worse and both Israel and Palestine are facing untenable governing situations. For starters, the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority remains limited. And these limitations will eventually affect US policy and interests with the US doing relatively little to influence Palestinian politics.
There is simply no substitute for strong political parties and institutions. Hamas is a terrorist organization that cannot be dealt with and should not be recognized. Then again, if Hamas were a genuine partner in the peace process (something, as of now, difficult to imagine), and they were truly committed to establishing some sort of stability, than they should be part of the process. Fatah, on the other hand, suffers from corruption, lethargy, and a general lack of professionalism. Some of these issues can be addressed by the United States but they also require a political will lacking in the PA.
It’s curious to note that the Palestinian Authority seems to respond more to local values and rhetoric than it does international influences. This limits the role of the United States. The US has negligible influence when it comes to the technical details of Palestinian governance and institutions. This leaves the US doing little more than publicly making statements about deficiencies and problems and subjecting the Palestinians and the Israelis to a discourse of criticism on the international stage. If there were actually consequences of this criticism that it might serve some productive value, but generalized statements criticizing the democratic behavior of the Palestinians or the Israelis seems to have little effect on either.
But as research in the peace and development process indicates, civil society is one of the most important entry points when trying to create new structures and improved relations. Civil society is that level of the polity that includes trade unions, professional associations, educational exchanges, mid-level business activity, and government exchanges. Here, the United States can maintain some influence and viability. It should support NGOs providing services to the public and require the PA to manage civil society effectively. Some NGOs have been controversial in the past with questionable goals and activities indicating that transparency is important.
The US should direct its attention more to working with the legitimacy and effectiveness of Palestinian institutions, especially at the civil society level. The US can help encourage technically skilled reformers and stimulate improved stability and effectiveness. Assistance at this civil society level avoids the ceremonial and political trappings of negotiation among state leaders and still positively influences the institutional development of society. An emphasis on the negotiation communication process at the state level inevitably encounters the stagnation and recalcitrance of Palestinian institutions which makes it even more difficult to initiate new productive directions toward peace and stability. The civil society level makes for interactions that are rationalized through business exchanges and necessary governing processes but still require contact among citizens.
I’m referring here to the Palestinian Authority and the development of its institutions as opposed to the Israelis. Israeli institutions are of course well established within their culture and society but in the future this civil society level will apply equally to the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. Right now the US is in no position to create powerful conditions for change or improvement of prospects for peace. But they can still be influential in preventing the continued undermining of governance, and the development of the all-important civil society that provides a stable foundation for institutions.