Corruption on both sides

Corruption appears to be far worse in Palestine than in Israel. In Palestine, large-scale corruption was imported along with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 1994, i.e., with the attempt by both parties to resolve the Palestinian issue, and it has flourished under conditions of both political progress and outright conflict. In Israel, the occupation has spawned corruption.

To be fair, power corrupts whether in Israel, Palestine or anywhere else. But our two societies are in worse shape than most, and we must ask why.

One factor both societies have in common is violence. In Israel, the violence inevitably spawned by the occupation has crept into all walks of society, where it in turn nurtures organized crime. In Palestine, the decision more than three years ago to rely on violence as a means of furthering the Palestinian cause against Israel has generated Israeli counter-violence which has weakened Palestinian societal institutions like the police.

Yasser Arafat’s regime also appears to have encouraged or tolerated, to various degrees, forms of anarchy throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The result, at least in some areas, is rule by gangs and warlords; in others, it is at times rule by no one. Even before that, with the advent of the Oslo process, Israel mistakenly indicated to Arafat that it would tolerate compromises in the rule of law in the Palestinian Authority if that was the price to be paid for Palestinians delivering security to Israel. In other words, we knew we were importing corruption. We ended up with neither rule of law in Palestine nor security in Israel.

Israel retains its societal mechanisms for fighting corruption: the police, the attorney general, the ministry of justice, an admirable court system, and a free press. In an atmosphere of conflict, suicide bombings, and violence imported from the occupation, they labor under extremely trying circumstances. The current discussion–in public and among law-enforcement officials–regarding the possible indictment of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is a sign that the system still works. What is missing–at least until some sort of modus vivendi is found with the Palestinians–is a vastly reinforced police force that is equipped to deal simultaneously with every crime from sex slavery and family and school violence to extortion and white collar violations.

This is doable, if courageous decisions are made to exploit the current dramatic reduction in conventional military threats against Israel and reduce yet further the military budget. This requires a recognition at the highest level–where unfortunately some of the corruption resides–that crime and corruption are themselves a danger to the country’s security, and that more resources, both qualitative and quantitative, must be devoted to internal law and order.

Obviously, one way to reduce part of the corruption on both sides is to end the occupation. The only way to do this today appears to be through unilateral steps. These may not end the violence, but they will certainly reduce the more damaging aspects of negative interaction between the two societies. As for the corruption that appears to be endemic to Arafat’s regime, the efforts of a single just man, Minister of Finance Salam Fayyad, have been salutary at the governmental level. But they apparently cannot touch Arafat himself, not to mention those anarchic areas of Palestinian life where government has ceased to function.

The Islamists, led by Hamas, whose popularity and influence are growing, have their own solutions to problems of corruption. But if they take power, not only will Palestinian society pay a heavy price in restriction of democracy and individual freedoms. Israel will find it difficult to coexist under any circumstances with a Palestinian Islamist neighbor.