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Meanwhile, in the West Bank

June 18, 2010

I’m traveling in Israel this week on an academic study tour with a mix of 15 political scientists, economists, and historians. It’s a grueling schedule – 14 to 16 hours of sessions per day – meeting with Israelis, Israeli –Arabs, and Palestinians. I finally have a short break in the schedule so this is the first of several posts.

I’ll post some thoughts on Gaza later, but I’ll start with the West Bank. On Tuesday, we went to Ramallah and met with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to talk about state building in the West Bank. Fayyad introduced his two-year plan for Palestinian statehood last August. The strategy has two main efforts: first, he moved to consolidate and gain control of the Palestinian security forces; and second, he has rolled-out a concerted effort to build governing institutions.

On the security side, things seem to be relatively stable. The PA has been able to consolidate the dozen or so security services into three – Fayyad noted/joked that he’s had to campaign hard to convince Palestinians that security pluralism isn’t a particularly healthy form of democratic pluralism.

On the statebuilding side, Fayyad began the plan by promoting1,000 small infrastructure projects. He said that the PA has turned away from large-scale projects because they are too susceptible to corruption and control by patronage systems. The small projects are also designed to demonstrate quick successes and show that the PA can accomplish some things. These include things like new roads and electrical services to rural communities, small business development grants, and small irrigation projects, etc…. In addition, Fayyad is moving to develop new state institutions by consolidating the legal system and introducing new administrative and regulatory structures to encourage market development. The PA Council of Ministers approved a new law on companies the day we arrived.

This strategy has generated some success. We also met with Stanley Fischer, the Governor of the Bank of Israel who told us that the West Bank grew between 8 – 9 percent last year and there is an expectation that the new stability of the PA sector will generate a modest increase in FDI from Arab and European firms. Anecdotally, we noticed quite a bit of new construction in Ramallah and several of the other towns under PA control.

I was struck by a couple of things on the visit to Ramallah. First, the situation in the West Bank is dramatically different from what we’ve been reading about in Gaza. There were many skeptics last year when Fayyad unveiled his plan. Yet, things do seem to be moving, albeit slowly, in the right direction. New institutions are emerging and there does seem to be some increased capacity for governance. Fayyad meets regularly with Israelis – he keynoted a speech to an Israeli military conference a while back – and he told us he is now moving ahead with a second phase of another wave of small infrastructure projects.

Second, the day before we went to Ramallah, an Israeli police officer was killed and three others were wounded during an attack in the West Bank near Hebron. This was the first incident of the sort in the West Bank in about a year. Given the patterns of escalation in the past decade, I expected the incident would trigger some kind of visible response from Israel. Yet, there was barely a blip. There was no additional Israeli security presence on Rt. 60 or Rt. 70 heading northwest of Jerusalem towards Ramallah. And, Fayyad immediately condemned the attack and stated, “experience has shown that violence harms the Palestinian national cause.” While it’s not clear what will happen a year from now when Fayyad’s two-year timeline for statehood expires, both sides clearly are acting to control escalation.

We’ll see if Fayyad’s experiment will work. We’ve heard a range of views about him and his efforts from the Israelis. But, it does strike me that it’s the only part of this conflict that is moving forward.

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.