Book Review: "State of Failure" by Jonathan Schanzer

State of Failure: Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Unmaking of the Palestinian State
Jonathan Schanzer
Palgrave/MacMillan, October 2013
Reviewed by Shari Hillman
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Last November, 138 members of the U.N. General Assembly voted to upgrade the Palestinians’ presence in that body from “observer entity” to “non-member observer state.” (Germany, Australia, and the U.K. were among the 41 abstentions. The U.S., Canada, the Czech Republic, Israel, and Micronesia were among the nine “no” votes.) This unilateral push in the U.N., rightly condemned by the U.S. and Israel, was the latest effort by the Palestinian Authority to move forward the issue of Palestinian statehood.

In State of Failure, Jonathan Schanzer has written the first in-depth examination of a question that badly needs asking: Are the Palestinians prepared for statehood? Or more specifically: Is the PA “an efficient, transparent, or financially viable authority that is prepared to function as a government for the Palestinian people?”

Clearly it is not, as news reports from time to time demonstrate, but that hasn’t deterred international donors and supporters of the PA.

One example: a leaked European report revealed in October that the Palestinian Authority squandered nearly $2.7 billion in European aid between 2008 and 2012. Less than a week after that news broke, German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with Mahmoud Abbas and reiterated Europe’s commitment to pouring yet more aid into the PA.

Such policies only encourage the corruption and dysfunction in the PA and ultimately hurt the Palestinian people.

Schanzer provides us with a detailed history of the Palestinian Authority that examines how its leaders have failed their people by not developing the infrastructure and political culture that could support an independent state. He holds the U.S. and Europe accountable for their contributions to these failures. (The idea that the PA was the antidote to the even more terrible Hamas did not move Palestinian state building forward.) And while the author does not minimize the difficulties that Israeli occupation and security needs posed and continue to pose for the Palestinians, his focus in this unique book is on the internal issues that have kept the Palestinians stateless and suffering.

First among them is the fact that the Palestinian Authority was born out of the PLO, a terrorist organization. Led by Yassir Arafat from 1969 until his death in 2004, the PLO was built on deception, corruption, secrecy, violence, and fierce loyalty to the leader, not exactly the characteristics needed for efficient government administration. As head of both the PLO and the PA, Arafat kept control through short chains of command that all led back to him, chains that were based on family ties, tribal alliances, patronage, and force. All money flowed through his hands to those he favored, all power was granted by him.

That singular control over money has been one of the most serious problems for the Palestinians and for the donor countries that have supported them. Top PLO leaders have been fantastically enriched while the average Palestinian got nothing. Salam Fayyad, who served as finance minister and later as prime minister, tried earnestly for years to find and account for Arafat’s assets, to set up a national PA treasury, and to bring PA finances up to accounting standards. The U.S. and other donor states were reassured by his efforts and by his personal integrity. Ultimately he was defeated by the PA’s political culture and Arafat’s monopoly on power, and later by Abbas’ enmity.

Schanzer offers some recommendations that perhaps should be obvious to an objective observer of Palestinian history: don’t expect terrorists to turn into administrators; develop private enterprise to replace foreign aid; require the Palestinians to allow a free press, to establish an independent judiciary, and to allow real economic development not dependent on patronage relationships. The Palestinians need not only a functioning government and a viable economy, he writes, but a legitimate public administration and an active civil society. None of these are currently in place.

As long as the U.S. and Europe continue to send billions in aid to the PA while failing to hold the Palestinians accountable for state-building, for ending incitement and terrorism, and for responsible financial practices, the Palestinians will be left either stateless or with a failed state. Their story will continue to be one of corruption and human misery instead of development and peace.

This review first appeared in the September-October 2013 issue of the RJC Bulletin, our bi-monthly newsletter for contributing RJC members who are current in their dues. To receive the Bulletin, please make your membership contribution or renew your membership here.