While No One's Looking, the Palestinians Are Building a State

Now it's time for the rest of the world to pitch in.

In the world of Palestinian politics, the recent weeks have been a study in contrasts. The international media has trained its focus off the shores of Gaza, where the flotilla fiasco has generated dramatic images of dead civilians and battered Israeli soldiers. The politics of this incident reflect the traditional sturm und drang of the Palestinian national movement: full of grand gestures and transformative ambitions that might result in bloodshed and embarrassment for Israel, but make no substantive contribution to Palestinian liberation.

But in Bethlehem, far away from the television cameras and breathless news reports, 2,000 Palestinian financiers also gathered recently at the second Palestine Investment Conference to quietly go about the business of building the economy of a viable Palestinian state. They discussed almost $1 billion in new projects targeting high-growth sectors, including information and communications technology, housing, and tourism. The politics of the conference represent a paradigm shift quietly taking place in the West Bank under the leadership of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, in which Palestinians are increasingly turning to the mundane, workaday tools of governance and development as their principal strategy for ending the occupation.

This strategic transformation is the result of a conundrum facing the Palestinian leadership, which has gambled its political future on a two-state agreement with Israel. If they fail, it is likely that both the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA) will permanently fade from history and the national movement will be captured by Islamists led by Hamas. Even PLO leaders, however, are still extremely skeptical about the ability of diplomacy to yield significant short-term progress, given the hard-line attitude of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government. Therefore, Palestinians have gravitated toward solutions that avoid exclusive reliance on diplomacy, which depends on American determination and Israeli seriousness, or slipping back into counterproductive, self-defeating violence.

The most important of these initiatives is the state- and institution-building program adopted by Fayyad's cabinet last August. This program marks an attempt to build the administrative, infrastructural, and economic framework for a Palestinian state -- not only in spite of the occupation, but as a means of confronting it. The plan calls for every PA ministry to meet a series of administrative and institutional goals, from economic and infrastructural developments to good governance and transparency measures. A budget document released in January added even more details to the program. The idea is that, if you build the state, it will come.

Palestinian nationalism had previously been conceived of as largely a top-down affair, concerned with success on the battlefield or at the highest levels of international diplomacy. But rather than seeking an impossible military victory or waiting for the sudden achievement of a major peace treaty, the state-building program seeks to create Palestine as a practical reality. Even as they continue to insist on their moral right of self-determination, Palestinians are seriously taking up their practical responsibilities of self-government.

Palestinians have also adopted nonviolent tactics designed to confront the occupation -- particularly the PA's boycott of settlement goods and mass protests against abusive occupation practices, such as the West Bank separation barrier. These tactics are designed to ensure that both Israelis and Palestinians understand that the state-building approach is not, as is sometimes claimed, a form of collaboration or "beautifying" of the occupation, but rather a sophisticated form of resistance to it. This approach also seeks to achieve clarity on the status of the occupied territories and confront Israelis with a simple question: Is this land going to be part of our state, or is it a part of yours?

This strategy is making quiet but significant progress. Last year, the PA completed more than 1,000 community development programs. It has created the nucleus of a Palestinian central bank and developed a transparent and accountable system of public financing. Hundreds of major development and public-private initiatives are under way, including at least two major telecommunications companies and the first planned Palestinian city. With significant international support, the framework of the Palestinian state is starting to take shape before our eyes.

The bedrock of the state-building program is the new security services trained by multinational forces Palestinians have deployed 2,600 officers in five major West Bank cities, ensuring unprecedented levels of law and order and facilitating the removal of a number of Israeli checkpoints. Israelis themselves have commended the effectiveness of the forces and praised their security coordination with Israeli forces. The combination of security improvements, increased access and mobility for Palestinians, and the PA's economic development projects led to a growth rate of 8.5 percent in the West Bank last year, one of the highest in the recession-plagued world economy. Perhaps even more significantly, about half of the PA's budget is now provided by Palestinian taxes and not international support.

In addition to this paradigm shift in the West Bank, Palestinian diplomacy is finally back on track after a difficult 12 months. Abbas's June 9 visit to the White House revealed that the PLO is presenting itself, for the first time in many years, as a real political partner to the United States. Abbas was able to achieve broad agreement with President Barack Obama's administration on most key points, including the necessity of easing the siege of Gaza without benefiting Hamas and reaching an agreement that, though direct Israeli-Palestinian talks are important, more political and diplomatic preparation is still required before they can be launched.

There have been some significant failures, of course, particularly regarding the problem of Hamas's grip over Gaza. Hamas stymied plans to hold national elections in January and July, which represented the only viable peaceful option for reunifying the Palestinian national movement. For the foreseeable future, therefore, national reconciliation appears to be a slogan rather than a practical possibility. The PLO and Hamas currently agree on absolutely nothing, from how to deal with Israel to the cultural and religious foundations of Palestinian society. The future of Hamas will likely be determined by the success or failure of the PA's state-building project, and its diplomatic efforts. A decisive failure of the new Palestinian tactics will probably make an Islamist takeover inevitable, but its success will discredit Hamas and weaken the organization's appeal.

The recent Gaza flotilla disaster and Israel's unconscionable and counterproductive blockade of humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza poses a significant challenge to the PA's strategy. In the coming months, its leadership will attempt to deny Hamas the ability to reap political benefits from Gazans' suffering. Particularly after Israel's bloody attack on the flotilla, PLO leaders are determined to help find a way to ease the siege without strengthening their rivals. They think that the blockade has primarily strengthened Hamas's grip on power in Gaza and are calling for a new way to separate the interests of Hamas and ordinary Gazans.

Palestinian strategy must contend not only with the fallout from the flotilla debacle, but with the constant stresses imposed by the occupation's continued restrictions on Palestinian economic development and the meager progress of diplomatic negotiations. Recent World Bank and IMF studies confirm that, though the institution-building project is meeting its stated objectives, under present conditions it can only go so far: The occupation must continue to recede for it to develop further. This means that increased Israeli cooperation is essential. The PA's state-building approach and its nonviolent tactics are means for achieving progress on the ground, but in the end they cannot be a substitute for a negotiated agreement.

Although the flotilla fiasco and international outrage concerning Gaza may be more dramatic, all parties have an interest in ensuring the success of the groundbreaking developments in the West Bank. International support and Israeli cooperation are essential for this project to realize its full potential. If that happens, the creation of a viable Palestinian state might attract more than a few newspaper headlines of its own soon enough.



A Short History of a Bad Metaphor

Working with Russia isn't necessarily a bad idea. Reducing it to a catchphrase is. 

As policy initiatives go, the "reset button" didn't exactly have the smoothest of rollouts. On March 6, 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov with a literal button meant to symbolize the Obama administration's intention to repair frayed ties with Russia. Unfortunately, one misplaced syllable on the Cyrillic label meant that the button actually said "overcharge," not "reset," and Clinton was subjected to a few days of media mockery in both capitals.

But despite (or perhaps because of) the initial gaffe, the phrase caught on. More than a year later, and just ahead of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Washington next week, "reset button" has become shorthand for the administration's entire Russia policy. Virtually every big-think article or op-ed written on U.S.-Russia relations since that day has referred to the reset button either admiringly or disparagingly.

What's more, the phrase has gone viral. Commentators have invoked the reset button in discussions of U.S. policy on Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey, Israel, Islam, Britain, Latin America, BP, climate change, Africa, health care, the economy, the war on drugs, and even the Obama presidency itself.

Now, when hostile leaders like Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez talk about reaching out to the United States, they say they're "willing to press the reset button." When Obama makes a major policy address on a controversial topic like the Gulf oil spill, the question pundits ask is whether he will be able to "hit the reset button."

One might almost get the impression that the U.S. political and media establishment has become one giant tech-support line, where the first response to any problem is, "Have you tried restarting the machine?"

"It definitely became a much bigger metaphor than was originally intended," said one senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It was not a conscious thing that we were going to go out and create this image. It's since been codified. Not by us, by the way."

The phrase, in verb form, actually dates back to the presidential transition period when then President-elect Obama told NBC's Tom Brokaw that "it's going to be important for us to reset U.S.-Russian relations." But it entered the popular lexicon when Vice President Joe Biden used it during a widely touted foreign-policy address at a security summit in Munich in February 2009.

"The last few years have seen a dangerous drift in relations between Russia and the members of our alliance," Biden said, referring to NATO. "It is time -- to paraphrase President Obama -- it's time to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should be working together with Russia."

The basic premise of the strategy is that on the major priorities of U.S. foreign policy -- containing Iran, fighting international terrorism, and reducing the risk of nuclear weapons -- there's no reason for the United States and Russia to be at odds. By focusing on these areas, there's potential for "win-win" outcomes rather than "zero-sum" competition. "This was a fairly radical notion in U.S.-Russia relations," says the administration official.

The success of this strategy is debatable. The administration has won deliverables on nuclear disarmament, Iran sanctions, and logistical support for the war in Afghanistan, but Russian leaders have so far been unwilling to budge on energy policy, democracy, or what they see as their right to assert influence over countries in their "near abroad." The administration has sought to "de-link" issues like human rights and missile defense from other priorities, preferring to focus on one problem at a time and on its own terms, rather than treating them like chits to be haggled over with Moscow. But to critics, it has often looked like the United States is selling out Russian democracy or traditional allies in Eastern Europe in favor of bigger foreign-policy priorities.

The Obama team claims this view comes from a misunderstanding of what the reset is. "The aim of the reset was never to create a good or happy or positive relationship with Russia," says the administration official. "The goal has been and will continue to be to engage the Russian government in ways that enhance our security and advance our values. The theory was that if we create a more substantive relationship, that will create the more positive atmospherics, not the other way around."

But whatever its authors intended it to mean, the idea of a reset as a new beginning, unburdened by historical baggage was very much in tune with the optimism of the early days of the Obama administration, when nearly every action by the new president seemed to constitute a radical break with the past.

The "reset" idea seems to be an example of a U.S. administration becoming trapped by its own rhetoric. Obama can't change the mindset of the Kremlin any more than he can make the oil in the Gulf of Mexico disappear or make congressional Republicans see the advantages of his health-care bill. More often than not, when the White House's critics call for a reset on one issue or another, it's not to suggest a new way forward, but to mock the idea that the president can restart the clock through sheer force of personality.

Moreover, Obama's Russia policy shows that resets are an easy target. Critics can snidely ask "How's that reset going?" every time Russia cracks down on dissidents or puts pressure on its neighbors. Conversely, when a genuine breakthrough is made, critics can point out that the administration is merely building on the work of its predecessor, rather than presiding over a major transformation.

Whatever power Obama's new tone might have once possessed is waning as his novelty wears off and the bitter memories of George W. Bush fade. The big reset -- Obama's arrival on the world stage -- has already happened. It's time to get down to the trickier business of addressing the problems that global popularity can't solve. Unfortunately, the one reset that really is needed, replacing a tired and misleading metaphor, might prove to be the toughest to pull off.