It’s neither the economy nor politics

You really can’t blame those regional and international actors and donors whose image of the West Bank and Gaza has evolved over the years from prospective independent new state to desperate basket case; whose attitude has changed from encouraging and cultivating a political peace process to ensuring that Palestinians don’t starve. Two main factors appear to have influenced this growing preference for economics over politics.

First, the political factor. So many formerly active advocates of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process have lost hope for any near-term solution. Many Israelis have concluded that the fault lies in a combination of poor Israeli and Palestinian leadership and political systems that constrain courageous decision-making and allow both terrorism and settlements to flourish. Many Palestinians have in recent years come to support Hamas, a movement that rejects peace with Israel. The moderate Arab states are increasingly more concerned about threats from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Hizballah, al-Qaeda and their own lack of cohesiveness than the seemingly bottomless pit of the Palestinian issue. And much of the rest of the world has watched the military and political failure of the withdrawal from Gaza and the Hamas takeover there and concluded that an agreed compromise solution is not in the offing.

Second, the economic factor. Efforts to prime Israeli-Palestinian coexistence through economic development have been a major feature of the two peoples’ relationship since the occupation of 1967. Moshe Dayan’s "open bridges" policy of 1967 and Shimon Peres’ "new Middle East" of the Oslo era come to mind, as does the Paris treaty of the mid-1990s that ensured ongoing Palestinian economic dependency on Israel. Nor is this strictly an Israeli approach: Palestinian economists, too, have advocated close economic integration, and the global donor community contributed billions of dollars during the Oslo era to development projects intended to catalyze peace through prosperity.

Nowhere and never did this approach succeed: negative political and security developments always prevailed over economics. But this has not stopped the advocates of the economic track from trying.

The donor countries (to Palestine) meet this week at the United Nations. It is understandable that these wealthy states, confronting the current poor prospects for peace, are focusing on a two-pronged economic effort. First, to ensure a subsistence level of existence in Gaza until Hamas rule somehow disappears, and second, to develop economic, political and military infrastructure in the West Bank as a precursor to a successful peace process. In both cases they are right, in the sense that the absence of a promising peace process shifts the emphasis to economic development. But they are wrong if they really think these economic efforts will evolve into peace any time soon.

That’s why the current policies of both the Olmert government and President Mahmoud Abbas seem so out of step with reality. On the one hand Olmert and Abbas, egged on by the Bush administration and each clutching at illusory straws of political salvation, are trying to generate a new peace process that totally lacks in the necessary foundations of strong government and a capacity to "deliver"–whether on new Israeli territorial and security concessions or on Palestinian responsibility for security. On the other, they are enforcing tight economic strictures on the Gaza Strip–the Israeli Cabinet just declared the Strip "hostile territory" where even vital supplies like electricity may now be cut off in punishment for terrorist rocket attacks on Israel–on the vain and unfounded assumption that this will somehow, by popular vote or street revolution, bring down Hamas.

Better to focus on support for Quartet envoy Tony Blair’s mandate to build Palestinian infrastructure; and better to reopen the Gaza Strip passages to a modicum of commerce–whatever the security situation will allow. A peace process should wait for the creation of viable Palestinian security institutions and stronger leadership in the West Bank and in Israel. As for the security situation around Gaza, Israel has far cleaner, more efficient and more humane options than impoverishing Gazans.