Paying for Peace: Is Bribing Arafat Necessary?

Natan Sharansky told the Forward that Israel is depositing about $8 million per month into Yasser Arafat’s private bank account and that the payoffs have totaled $375 million since 1995. While not directly criticizing the Barak government or its predecessor, Sharansky is now questioning the wisdom of the payoffs, which he believes strengthen Arafat as a dictator at the expense of encouraging democracy in the Palestinian Authority (PA). This revelation shocked me, but doesn’t seem to have generated so much as a raised eyebrow in the American Jewish community. Maybe it should.

The Middle East is known for government corruption and bribes are considered by many people in the region to be a legitimate business practice. Though Israel may be less corrupt than other countries in the region, it has its share of malfeasance. To give one recent example, the head of the Israeli Egged bus company was accused of accepting bribes from Mercedes Benz in exchange for purchasing the company’s buses. Foreign policy is also often conducted using bribes; sometimes they’re just called something different, such as financial aid. The assistance is given with the tacit understanding that the recipient will treat the donor well.

The case of bribing Arafat is interesting. On one hand, you could argue it undermines the rationale behind the peace process, namely, that the Palestinians in general, and Arafat in particular, changed their attitudes toward Israel and want to coexist. The payoff gives the impression that Arafat is just doing what is required to get rich. Then again, from Israel’s perspective, this may not matter that much, since the main objective of Rabin and his successors is achieving separation from the Palestinians, not getting them to become Zionists. If a peace agreement with the Palestinians is the result of dealing with Arafat, then $8 million a month is a small price to pay for "peacekeeping costs."

You would think the Palestinians in the territories might be angered by the payoffs, since they reinforce the existing image of their leaders as corrupt, make Arafat look like a lackey of the Israelis and illustrate the lack of democracy in Palestinian society. Since so many of the top PA officials are believed to be equally corrupt, paid off by Arafat or others, and perhaps hopeful of one day being the beneficiaries of Israeli largesse, it isn’t surprising they are silent. But where are the Palestinians supposedly championing democracy? I never thought I’d miss Hanan Ashrawi.

Arafat’s acceptance of the money also fascinates me. I suppose he could turn down the cash, but why should he? He has made personal sacrifices for his people, what’s wrong with getting what he may view as a long-deserved financial reward for his commitment to the cause? Arafat may be as dictatorial as Saddam Hussein, but he hasn’t aped the Iraqi’s lavish lifestyle. He doesn’t have palaces and fleets of cars, so he’s not flaunting his wealth, but this makes me wonder what he needs all those millions for in the first place.

From the U.S. perspective, Arafat’s secret bank account should be more troubling — at least outside the State Department. The diplomats care only that agreements are signed, and if Arafat needs a financial incentive to put his name on the dotted line, so be it. They, too, are paying off the Palestinians — with improved ties with the United States and financial aid. State certainly doesn’t care if this undermines democracy in the Palestinian Authority, since the Arabists have always accepted dictatorship in the Arab world. Congress, however, might ask why hundreds of millions of U.S. taxpayers’ money should go to a regime that is unambiguously corrupt (documented by the Palestinians’ own auditors) and that pleads poverty while their leaders collect interest on their private fortunes.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not one of those who oppose aid to the Palestinians. So long as the Israeli government believes it advances the peace process, I support the allocations. Of course, it is now easier to understand why the Israelis have lobbied for the aid despite the Palestinians’ consistent failure to live up to their commitments. Clearly, money is needed not only for economic development in the territories, but to grease the political wheel.