The resignation of two Palestinian prime ministers in quick succession has left the Palestinian Authority leadership in limbo even as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry seeks to accelerate negotiations toward a two-state settlement.
But naming a new prime minister will accomplish little in furthering a settlement unless the Palestinians can also overcome the patronage, corruption and infighting in their security forces. This would require a change not only in the way the Palestinian Authority operates, but also in the approach of Israel, the United States and others involved.
Building a Palestinian state requires real reform of the Palestinian defense, intelligence and police forces. International confidence and investment will only come once violence is controlled and law-based rule is accepted.
Despite massive international assistance, including over $500 million from the U.S. State Department in recent years, reform of the West Bank security forces has frayed. No prime minister can pull it back together alone.
As the Palestinian Authority prime minister from 2007 until he stepped down earlier this month, Salam Fayyad was hailed as the leader of a technocratic revolution in the West Bank, and he made security-sector reform a priority. Fayyad strove to replace the corrupt and intimidating militias of the Arafat era with professional security forces who earned the respect of the population. His efforts won broad international support.
The hope was that Israel would find a reliable security partner in this rebooted version of the Palestinian Authority, smoothing the way to a two-state solution. Indeed the security situation for Israel improved markedly. The P.A. kept its end of the bargain, working with the Israel Defense Forces to contain radical Hamas activity in the West Bank and prevent attacks against Israel. With new training, the security forces also brought street crime in the West Bank under control.
But old patronage networks ultimately proved stronger than the technocrats. Fayyad never managed to control the rat’s nest of overlapping Palestinian security agencies, whose constant infighting was encouraged by struggles within President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party.
Much of the training supported by the United States and the European Union was conducted in Jordan, away from traditional Palestinian bases, in hopes that months away from home would cement a new professional ethos. Yet old neighborhood and clan ties continued to be used in recruitment and some of the most powerful Palestinian security organizations remained outside the reform regimen.
And much as in Afghanistan, various U.S. agencies ended up working at cross purposes. While the State Department and Pentagon cooperated with U.S. allies to create and fund training programs designed to overcome corruption in the security forces, the C.I.A. reportedly remained tied to agencies that operated outside these channels, continuing the traditional patronage system.
The situation was made worse by Israel. The Israeli military talked a good game but severely limited the activities and resources of P.A. security forces. It is understandable that Israel distrusts the Palestinian leadership and any Palestinian armed force. But placing strict limits even on P.A. imports of non-lethal equipment from the United States and Europe, as well as on the ability of various Palestinian police and security forces to coordinate their law-enforcement activities by radio, severely undermined their effectiveness. Israel also sharply limited the ability of Palestinian security forces to move about the West Bank, making it hard for them to capture common criminals.
These restrictions have quashed the development of pride and optimism among the security forces in a future Palestinian state.
The consequences of all these developments were tragically evident in the West Bank area of Jenin. Jenin had been a showpiece of security-sector reform. U.S.-funded and Jordanian-trained P.A. forces swept through in 2008, arresting militias which had long spread terror and extortion among residents. Israel joined the international community in announcing a Jenin Development Plan, offering special economic and agricultural assistance and eased security restrictions for merchants. It was Fayyadism at its best.
But the 2011 assassination of a respected theater director heralded the return of gang-style violence in Jenin, and in May 2012 the home of Jenin’s reformist governor was attacked by gunmen, leading to an overnight battle. When the dust settled, it became clear that factions inside the supposedly reformed security forces had been fighting one another for control over territory and patronage in Jenin. At least two of the senior officers who were arrested had recently undergone U.S.-funded training in Jordan.
Violent patronage-based infighting is the bane of state-making. The only way for reform of the security forces to succeed — and for international confidence and investment in the West Bank to grow — is for all the involved parties (the Palestinian Authority and Fatah, Israel, the United States, its European allies and all of their agencies) to focus on rule-based professionalism, not personal patronage.
To do so requires a transformation in the thinking of both Palestine and the international community. That, and not a new prime minister, is the path to stable statehood in Palestine.
Kimberly Marten is a professor of political science at Barnard College, acting director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, and the author of Warlords: Strong-Arm Brokers in Weak States.