To Fix Middle East, Obama Must Ignore "Experts"

Joel Mowbray

2/4/2011 12:01:00 AM - Joel Mowbray

Usually when chaos erupts in the Middle East, attention turns immediately to Israel and the Palestinians. Not so this time.

Middle East "experts" have maintained for decades that creating a Palestinian state was the linchpin to solving everything else in the region. That theory has gone up in flames.

Yet this does not mean that the Palestinians should be ignored. President Obama should focus on helping the Palestinians in his efforts to get ahead of rapidly unfolding events in Egypt and across the Arab world.

But first he must scrap the old paradigm.

Playing it safe has not made us safer. The Oslo process has little to show for itself after nearly two decades, and our entire approach to the Arab world has failed. Forcing illegitimate governments onto people can produce years of stability, but the era of the Internet and social networking easily can render it ephemeral.

While scrapping the Oslo model in place for two decades would effectively announce that no "Middle East peace deal" will be on the table, there clearly are more pressing concerns in the region.

Jordan's King Abdullah II, for example, just dismissed his entire Cabinet and overhauled his government in hopes of mollifying the protesters. Though he must continue domestic reform efforts, there is little doubt his people - the majority of whom claim Palestinian lineage - care deeply about their neighbors and family members on the western border in the Palestinian Authority-controlled West Bank.

It would seem counterintuitive to fix what does not seem to be broken. The West Bank has among the quietest "streets" in the Arab world right now. No doubt a primary reason is the robust economic growth the area has enjoyed recently.

Quiet prosperity, however, should not be mistaken for deep satisfaction. The more secular Fatah Party, founded by Yasser Arafat and headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, doesn't enjoy a deep wellspring of popular support outside of its own payroll, and Hamas has fallen out of favor even with many Islamists.

Then there are deep cultural problems built up during nearly two decades of incitement and indoctrination, the result of which has been disturbingly strong support for terrorism against Israel.

Fixing what ails the Palestinian society will not be easy, nor can it be done quickly.

Nevertheless, it will be easier in the West Bank than in almost any other Arab state. West Bank Palestinians are well-educated, live in a compact area and once again enjoy a vibrant economy.

More important, they have been exposed for decades to the functioning democracy - warts and all - of the Jewish state, including its protections for basic freedoms and minority rights. Polls have shown that when asked what type of government they want, Palestinians have said they would like one modeled on Israel's.

West Bank Palestinians would seem ripe for accepting real democracy. Unfortunately, the Western nations that have long been crucial to propping up the Palestinian economy have ignored both corruption and the incitement that has poisoned the culture.

U.S. taxpayers have pumped billions in direct and indirect aid to the Palestinian Authority, yet little has been done to cultivate alternative political voices to Fatah and Hamas.

Some plausible alternatives already exist. Palestine Forum advocates for a secular society with equal rights for all and a peaceful, negotiated two-state solution with Israel. It was started in 2007 by Palestinian billionaire Munib al-Masri, founder of the Engineering & Development Group. Wasatia is an Islamic group that argues for peace, and its coalition includes women, Christians and other minorities. Finally, Third Way is a secular faction headed by current Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, though it is no longer a functioning party.

None has emerged as viable, in part because the United States has not provided the kind of critical support as it did to anti-communist groups in the former Soviet Bloc or to reformers across the unfree world. The U.S. cannot simply anoint new leadership, but it can use its leverage to guarantee freedom to organize and attract political support.

The Palestinian Authority has attempted to head off its own protests by scheduling municipal elections, but this could make things worse. Balloting alone - even in "free and fair" elections - does not equal true democracy. Hamas carried out a blood-soaked coup against fairly elected Fatah members in Gaza after the free and fair 2006 election.

As the inherently slow process of developing political alternatives unfolds, the United States could instill immediate confidence by insisting on transparency and accountability in the hundreds of millions the Palestinian Authority receives.

Less obvious but no less important is that the United States must use its considerable influence to remove the Islamic indoctrination and incitement against Israel that has made Palestinians more excited about terrorism than peace. Conditioning aid to the PA on ending incitement would be a great place to start.

Part of preparing for a free society is also changing the discourse away from poisonous rhetoric. A society consumed with hatred of its neighbor might be distracted from the misdeeds of its leaders, but its people are still angry. That's hardly a recipe for long-term success.

Simply creating a Palestinian state won't do much and might make matters worse. Fixing the Palestinian society and signaling that the United States is serious about creating a truly free society, however, could substantially boost the Jordanian government and prevent unrest in the West Bank.

The question is whether President Obama will play it "safe" - or actually try to make us safer.