Monday, January 26, 2009

Obama, West Can Help Gaza by Passing Up Hamas

Natan Sharansky

Jan. 23 (Bloomberg) -- With the end of full-scale fighting in Gaza, all eyes will turn to rebuilding. We can and should expect that the U.S., Europe, Israel and the Arab states will, not too long from now, start pouring billions of dollars into construction, investment in business, education, energy and other projects in the Gaza Strip. The rebuilding of Gaza is one of the most important foreign- policy challenges facing President Barack Obama in his first 100 days in office. His goal, along with that of other interested parties, should be nothing less than creating a viable and peaceful life for the Palestinian people.

But how is this to be achieved?

The most important principle is recognizing that whoever is in charge of receiving and distributing these funds will determine the future of Palestinian life in Gaza. Whoever is in charge of the reconstruction will hold the keys to power there for the foreseeable future.

Obviously, this job can’t be entrusted to Hamas. By giving it authority over reconstruction, we would be guaranteeing that the funds would go not to Palestinians’ actual welfare, but to rebuilding Hamas’s arsenal and re-asserting its grip over Palestinian life, all with the stated aim of destroying Israel -- just as Lebanese reconstruction after the 2006 war ended up strengthening Hezbollah and letting it rearm.

Israel has achieved its successes by reaching agreements with Egypt, the U.S., and Europe, while ignoring Hamas. Hamas had no role in ending the war; it should have no role in building the peace.

Reduced Power

Right now, Hamas’s rule over Gaza is at an unprecedented low. In addition to its devastated military capability, it has lost the stranglehold over a Palestinian population that has come to understand the direct link between their suffering and the policies of their regime.

At this moment, we should do everything in our power to deepen Hamas’s political isolation rather than relieve it. This means working not with Hamas, but with the Palestinian Authority, to create a new political reality on the ground. But as far as reconstruction is concerned, the PA can’t be the answer, either. The Palestinian Authority is, simply, far too corrupt.

For years after the PA was established under Yasser Arafat, the West accepted his insatiable appetite for graft and racketeering as a necessary evil for maintaining power.

Rampant Corruption

As a minister of Industry and Trade in the Israeli government involved in numerous efforts to help promote the Palestinian economy, I saw this corruption first-hand: Public money was routinely funneled into private accounts; joint economic ventures were agreed to only on condition that they directly benefited the family businesses of PA leaders; and joint industrial zones had to be kept entirely under the control of the PA because, as it turned out, all Palestinian employees were being forced to give up a significant part of their salaries as kickbacks to bureaucrats.

The result wasn’t merely the funneling of hundreds of millions of Western dollars away from the daily needs of Palestinians into the coffers of Arafat and his cronies, but ultimately the rise of Hamas: Hamas was elected, after all, because of popular backlash against the PA’s corruption.

New Regime

The only way to give real hope to the Palestinians in Gaza is through the creation of an international body that consists of the U.S., Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the European states -- a structure whose first order of business should be to establish a mechanism for making sure that every project contributes directly to Palestinian life, not politics.

No longer can the refugee camps be centers of misery and fanatical indoctrination; no longer can the industrial zones and private businesses be hijacked for the comfort of the ruling elites and their families.

In other words: If the new Gaza regime isn’t built on real standards of transparency and accountability, then all these billions will be an investment not in peace, but in perpetuating the misery of Palestinians -- and in the inevitable next round of conflict. But if such a mechanism can be made to work, we may yet see a better day for Palestinians and Israelis alike.

(Natan Sharansky is chairman of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies, a former Deputy Prime Minister and author of the recently published Defending Identity by Public Affairs.)

To contact the author of this column: Natan Sharansky at

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