Politics has been the curse of this corner in the Middle East. Proclamations and grand intentions coming from those claiming to be leaders of Palestine, Israel, the United States and other great powers who say they are pursuing peace are actually paving the road to nowhere. Neither Palestinian nor Israeli leaders can overcome the mutual suspicions of one another that prevail their populations, or deal effectively with the extremists in their camps who do what they can to derail whatever agreements seem feasible. Americans, Europeans, and worthies of the United Nations make things worse. They inflame Palestinian expectations, and make demands of Israel (e.g. stop building in neighborhoods that have been Israeli for 45 years) that add to Jewish outrage and distrust.
Fortunately for us all, government is more than politics. Middle- and lower-level technicians in government departments have done better than the politicians who are their superiors. Security personnel, engineers and other professionals from the two sides meet and arrange things between them, except when politicians and other activists heat things up to the point where cooperation is impossible.
Some of the aid projects coming to Palestine from the United States and the European Community have added to the cooperation. Notable have been programs to train Palestinian security personnel and to finance projects in the fields of roads, sewage, and water. What comes from the toilets of Palestinians and Israelis ends up hurting both communities if it is not treated. Clean water in Palestine and professional police--as opposed to bribe-taking thugs--improves security on the streets of the West Bank and lessens the threat of terror in Israel. If Palestinians can move more quickly from one part of their territory to another, they are more likely to be content and prosperous.
This is not a protest against Israeli security barriers or IDF incursions when Palestinian rockets fly or other extremists do what they do.
Some incidents of terror have involved Palestinian security personnel. However, things have gotten better since the United States and Jordan began cooperating with finance and training, and Israel permitted the inflow of appropriate weapons and other equipment.
Gaza is another world, whose leadership is the weakest chink in Palestinians' calls for international assistance.,
General aid to Palestine is more problematic than money directed at specific projects, where technocrats from the donor countries oversee the process of implementation. Money that goes to the budget of the Palestine Authority, and what comes under the heading of humanitarian assistance has shown itself leakable to the private accounts of those with their hands close to the till. Donors recognize the problem of corruption, but are not sufficiently concerned to monitor their contributions. They seem satisfied with getting applause from the trendy folk who admire aid to Palestine without paying attention to the details.
Political scientists have long pondered the interface between politics and government. Classic in the field is an item published in the latter part of the 19th century by a professor who later had some success as a politician.
Woodrow Wilson's Study of Administration (1887), as well as several shelves of literature written since then wrestle with the proper division of labor between politics and and other elements of government. It is fair to summarize it by saying that democracy requires politics, but administration (i.e., the various professions of technocrats working for government) is essential to get things done. A corollary is that politicians talk, often without a sense of responsibility for what comes next, while administrators pick up the pieces and accomplish practical tasks, all the while keeping the peace between those arguing about what the politicians said or did not say.
Why the prominence of politicians proclaming grand intentions they have no chance of accomplishing?
Are Obama, Abbas, Netanhayu and a passel of European national leaders nothing but fools who are deluding themselves and us? Do they actually believe what they say, or are they paying lip service in order to maintain a posture of political correctness among their elite colleagues?
One can never be sure, but perhaps politicians are governed--and misled--by expectations of their profession. They operate with simple conceptions of democracy, and may think that they can persuade other leaders and their publics to believe and act according to what they think is right. Or they only may be doing what is certain to gain them support from their home constituencies.
Technocrats have political views, but their work is simpler and more clearly defined. They know how to train personnel, construct roads and facilities to deal with sewage and supply clean water, and most of what else comes from departments that produce physical infrastructure and social services.
In the tiny space that is Israel and Palestine, administrators from each community are bound to deal with one another. Roads must connect at agreed places. There are shared lines for electricity, telephones, water, and sewage. Radio and television services must not interfere with one another in order to be useful to each community..Communicable diseases and pollution cannot be contained within political boundaries.
My reading of history discourages any expectations of an independent Palestine. However, classes with Palestinian and Jewish students, travels on the Jerusalem tram that picks up passengers in Arab and Jewish neighborhoods, as well as shared space and friendships in the university gym provide me with enough optimism to see me through the ugliness.
Neither Israelis nor Palestinians can live in the modern world without politicians. We also have our literary figures, media commentators, and religious leaders. All are part of the what people expect in places that are in tune with what others are doing. Outsiders who bemoan the plight of Palestinians grossly exaggerate their poverty and misery, especially in the case of those in the West Bank. Even the poor among them feel the impact of Arab culture that is far richer than the shouts of Jew-hating fanatics.
How to proceed on the road of improved public services and the cooperation that is inherent in sharing aspirations of clean air and water and other decent services in a small space and intermixed populations, without falling afoul of the excitements engendered by politicians who seem to care so little about what they produce?
No one since Wilson has produced the key. And if we take another look at his own record, he didn't do so well with his fascination and frustrations involving the League of Nations. His story suggests that political rhetoric is a trap for those who do not worry enough about what we can label as the implications, carry through, implementation, or the nitty gritty of administration.
Wilson was not sufficiently aware that politics is the art of the possible. Neither did Barack Obama when he preached from Cairo and subsequently to Israelis, Palestinians, and other Arabs. Polls indicate that he angered each of the relevant publics, and did not produce the results he demanded in short order. Abbas and Netanyahu are speaking to their own communities, and not to those who must be persuaded.
Keep us safe from grand proclamations. Clean sewage and efficient trams are more useful.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at November 17, 2011 06:45 AM