JERUSALEM — The gleaming new governor's office for the Salfit district of the northern West Bank is typical of Palestinian government buildings.
Beyond a marble atrium, a visitor finds several floors, each with a half-dozen rooms equipped with leather couches and chairs, computers and desks. All of them are completely empty.
Next door, by contrast, stands an unassuming police station, built by the police officers themselves. They used to work as day-laborers on Israeli construction sites before it became virtually impossible to obtain a permit to travel through the checkpoints. Now, they must settle for less-well-paid work as cops. Unlike the placeholders in the Governor's office, the police are getting the job done.
Security training for the police in the northern West Bank — paid for with new injections of U.S. aid money — is one of the few bright spots in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which seems otherwise to be plunging from disaster to catastrophe.
"There's nothing happening up here," says Atef Abu al-Rob, a human rights field worker who lives in nearby Jenin. "The Israelis don't come here, because the police actually keep it quiet."
The violence of Gaza dominates the front pages, but there are no headlines in "nothing happening."
Still, compare the calm achieved by small security programs like this to the emptiness of the attention-grabbing commitment last year by the U.S. president, George W. Bush, to secure a comprehensive peace deal before the end of his term. To many observers, it was ridiculously optimistic at the time. But in light of how the conflict has ignited once again it is hard to disagree that such a goal — without any diplomatic strategy to achieve it — was dangerously delusional.
It is the steady, measured steps of the police training program that Barack Obama would be wise to fall in with, as he takes office with the Middle East once again in flames.
"There's not much room for renewing a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians," said Michael Oren, Jerusalem-based author of "Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present."
"Obama ought to approach the situation with a tremendous amount of realism," Oren added.
If Obama wants to heed that advice, he'd best look beyond the volatile Islamist militants of Hamas and the corrupt PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) hacks of Fatah.
Instead, he ought to work with Salam Fayyad, a University of Texas trained economist who founded a new political party called The Third Way with a former Palestinian peace negotiator, Hanan Ashrawi. Fayyad has rescued the Palestinian economy from imminent collapse by instituting anti-corruption reforms first as Finance Minister and since mid-2007 as Prime Minister.
In return, Israel and international donors have handed over hundreds of millions of dollars held back because of fears it would disappear into foreign bank accounts, like much of the $4 billion poured into Yasser Arafat's regime in the decade after the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993.
That cash enables concrete steps — like the police training in Salfit — to go ahead. Similar programs in Jenin, the northernmost West Bank town, recently received a $14 million boost from the U.S. Thanks to Fayyad, that money is actually spent on the cops, whereas under his predecessors much of it would have ended up in Swiss bank accounts or building the fancy seafront villas that Hamas torched when it took over in Gaza.
Trouble is, the U.S. doesn't get much credit among ordinary Palestinians for such unspectacular programs. Not when U.S. military aid to Israel is paying for the aggressive ground campaign and airstrikes on Gaza, an offensive aimed at preventing Hamas from launching rockets over the fence into Israeli cities.
From the Arab world perspective, the equation is clear: when Israel acts, it does so with Washington's backing and, for most Arabs, that makes the U.S. just as guilty of striking at innocent civilians as the Israeli army.
"The longer the attack on Gaza goes on, the greater the price to be paid by the friends of the U.S. in the Middle East," said Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian cabinet minister.
Israelis are counting on President Obama maintaining the U.S.'s traditional strong support for Israel's right to defend itself against attack. On a campaign visit last July to Sderot, the blue-collar Israeli town most frequently struck by Hamas rockets, Obama said: "If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I would do everything to stop that, and would expect Israel to do the same thing."
That might be nothing more than the folksy, reductive logic demanded by U.S. presidential campaigns — particularly when the strong Jewish vote in Florida carried so much weight. But in Jerusalem it's taken as a sign that Obama isn't about to crack down on Israelis for protecting their kids.
His chosen Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, is also likely to push a small-scale, pragmatic agenda. After all, her husband spent 13 days at Camp David in 2000 micromanaging a failed attempt to get Arafat to agree to a peace deal with an "end of the conflict" clause. (Close, but no Nobel Peace Prize.)
The challenge for Obama is to change the U.S.'s Middle East strategy after the disastrously polarizing Bush years without appearing to concede defeat over the importance of democracy to the region. If such a defeat were to happen or even the perception of such a defeat, that would leave the door open to Islamists all over the Arab world, who claim they have their own alternative answers. And it would almost certainly provide a lot of work for those former laborers now donning berets and blue police fatigues in Salfit.
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