On Tuesday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called Ehud Olmert to congratulate him on the Jerusalem District Court decision that acquitted him of two major corruption charges that led to his resignation as Prime Minister. In an apparent coincidence, the same day in Washington, the House Subcommittee on the Middle East dedicated a large part of its hearing to a discussion on Abbas' alleged corruption in a hearing titled “Chronic Kleptocracy: Corruption within the Palestinian Political Establishment.”
One of the subcommittee members, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), mentioned Olmert in his remarks, saying that the reason the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks failed "in all three cases is that the Israeli prime minister was, politically speaking, a very lame duck." Turning the Palestinians, Ackerman said that Corruption in the Palestinian Authority is "unquestionably serious, and in some areas debilitating." Adding that "for the Palestinians, it has not been the deciding factor between the ongoing conflict or peace. With a bit more courage from their leaders, Palestinians could well be getting ready to celebrate their 10th independence day."
The committee chairman, Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH), pointed to the fact that in the past the West made the mistake of ignoring the failings of leaders with which they were dealing. "We are shown the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza, but instead of highlighting the ways that the Hamas terrorist leadership mismanages the local economy or gives Israel justifiable cause for concern, we are told that an Israeli blockade is to blame."
"Similarly, instead of calling attention to the omnipresent and insidious corruption within the PLO and Fatah leadership in the West Bank, we are told that Israeli settlements, many of which will surely not be a part of any future Palestinian state, are the true problem. If the Arab Spring has taught us nothing else, it has shown us that we must be concerned not just with how governments interact with each other, but also with how they treat their own populations," he said.
Chabot said that reports suggest that current Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has used his position "to line his own pockets as well as those of his cohort of cronies, including his sons, Yasser and Tareq ...who have amassed a great deal of wealth and economic power - have enriched themselves with U.S. taxpayer money, allegedly receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in USAID contracts. If one of these leaders - against all empirical evidence - were to be willing to make peace with Israel, which will surely require unpopular even if necessary concessions, how can we expect the Palestinian people to respect an agreement negotiated by a hollow leader, devoid of legitimacy among his own people?"
Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the western countries encouraged corruption by looking the other way. "We persuaded ourselves that it was smart to overlook it, to make believe it was a minor peccadillo of no real weight or import. The Clinton administration invited Arafat to the White House thirteen times, more times than any other foreign visitor, and you can be sure that among the many possible subjects being discussed his personal corruption did not appear on the list. That was a very damaging position for our country to take, it signaled to Palestinians who were disgusted with public corruption that we were not interested and were not going to hold Arafat to account. And it was condescending, suggesting that we thought Arabs, or Palestinian Arabs, could not really be expected to have honest public institutions."
Abrams called on the subcommittee "to abandon our own history of applying double standards and overlooking corruption, and instead build anti-corruption efforts and evaluations into our own aid program."
Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, echoed the same sentiment, suggesting funds be removed from places where corruption is exposed. "We give it to Palestinians as if it is owed to them, without expectations," he said.
Witnesses admitted serious progress was made - but expressed concern over the recent power fight between President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad - and warned that Fatah's ability to win over the Palestinian public in the elections is correlated to the public perception of how corrupt is the Palestinian Authority.
There seemed to be one voice of dissent: Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-VA), who protested the hearing's biased title. "We don't ask about the magnitude of corruption or its impact; we actually say 'Chronic Kleptocracy: Corruption Within the Palestinian Political Establishment.' That virtually says to anyone reading the title that it's chronic, it's a kleptocracy - not a government - and it permeates the Palestinian political establishment. For us to prejudge the case, I think, affects the whole tone and tenor of this hearing. I would hope as we move forward in the future we'd be a little more neutral in the wording so that we can actually get at the facts."
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