Connect to share and comment

Can Palestinians step up to self-government?

Tax breaks, smaller government, a rationalized legal system? No, this is a long way from New Jersey.

Former Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei (R) stands with Tayeb Abdel-Rahim in front of a picture depicting the late Yasser Arafat during the Fatah congress in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Aug. 9, 2009. The congress of the leading Palestinian party, Fatah, voted for a new executive body and assembly filled with fresh faces to regain the lost trust of the Palestinian people. (Nayef Hashlamoun/Reuters)

RAMALLAH — More than two decades after declaring an independent state, the Palestinians now say they may be able to run one.

Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat declared an independent Palestinian state at a conference in Algiers in 1988. But in 2000, when presented with the basis for a state, he failed to agree to a final deal in negotiations with Israel. Current Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad unveiled a plan this week that would set up an independent state in the Palestinian areas in two years — whether Israel likes it or not.

“We must confront the whole world with the reality that Palestinians are united and steadfast in their determination to remain on their homeland, end the occupation and achieve their freedom and independence," Fayyad said at a press conference in Ramallah, where the Palestinian Authority has its seat of government. "We will be the initiators and set up a de facto Palestinian state."

Fayyad, as U.S.-educated economist, has been urging other Palestinian politicians to end the civil strife between the Fatah Party, which effectively governs the West Bank, and the Islamists of Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. Privately he has said for some time that the Palestinians need to be seen to be governing themselves, rather than stumbling along at Israel’s whim. That feeble appearance had been particularly strong since peace talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel broke down during the war in Gaza at the turn of the year. Since then, the Palestinians have refused to negotiate until Israel halts all building in its West Bank settlements.

At first the U.S. seemed to support that position and the Palestinians settled back to watch Israel’s new right-wing government sweat. But the Israelis have brazened it out, so that international politicians now appear to accept the idea that Israel can continue to build in its settlements provided that it doesn’t expand their boundaries.

After a meeting in London on Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown accepted what Israelis call “natural growth” in the settlements. “They need kindergartens and houses for their families,” Brown said. “This doesn’t mean it’ll take up more West Bank territory.”

Perhaps Brown thinks the Israelis are planning to build new floors on top of existing homes in the West Bank. Anyone who’s watched the settlements expand knows that more West Bank territory is precisely what’ll be swallowed up as long as Israel doesn’t promise an absolute freeze. But Brown’s declaration demonstrates the formula international leaders are using to back down from their earlier pressure on Israel.

It’s clear to Fayyad and the more realistic Palestinian politicians that they’ve lost the initiative that seemed to be with them in June when President Barack Obama called for a settlement freeze. His 65-page plan is an attempt to regain that lost impetus.

Fayyad’s statehood plan includes an international airport, a sea cargo terminal, and an oil refinery.

If that state sounds more like New Jersey than Palestine, then wait until you hear the Americanized ideology behind it.