Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Hold Your Nose and Vote

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, April 18, 2006 --  

American outrage at the corruption of public officials in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal is one of several factors leading pundits to predict heavy losses by the ruling Republican party in fall congressional elections. But Americans who think they have it bad with corrupt government would be well advised to get some perspective by looking overseas. And when it comes to public corruption, nobody has a thing on the government of the Palestinian territories.

Last Thursday, demonstrations in the West Bank turned violent as angry civil servants, security forces, and unemployed cronies of the Palestinian Liberation Organization seized the Palestinian Authority cabinet building in Ramallah.1 The rioters' various demands included new government jobs, higher salaries for existing government employees, promotions, and various other means of divvying up the budget of the Palestinian Authority.

It may seem outrageous that violent behavior is used to get or advance a civil service career, but the transparent, qualifications-oriented process generally practiced in the United States was unknown in the PLO-controlled areas of the West Bank and Gaza strip. Getting a government paycheck was based on who your friends were. The rioters, made up of cousins, uncles, brothers, and other incompetent cronies of the former PLO government, had come to expect their regular share of the budget as a matter of privilege.

The trouble, of course, is that the PLO was thrown out in recent elections, replaced by Hamas, a radical Islamic party known in the west for sponsoring suicide bombings that target Israeli civilians. With their PLO patrons out and Hamas in, PLO cronies figured they had little to lose by resorting to violence to seek a continued share of the public kitty.

Ironically, there is no longer a public kitty to fight over. International outrage over Hamas' bloody record has led to a complete cutoff of Western aid and Israeli customs duties that had almost entirely funded the Palestinian Authority budget. While it is understandable that Western governments would refuse to finance a government controlled by a party that blows up women and children, the real outrage is that they were willing to fund the insanely corrupt PLO government for so many years.

Westerners believe that Palestinians elected terrorist Hamas politicians because Palestinians are filled with hate for Israel. Wrong. Hamas was elected because the PLO government was incompetent and unimaginably corrupt. Unless you were one of the few lucky enough to be a cousin or an uncle or a friend, the PLO government was unlikely to do little more for you than extract bribes for meager public services.

Contrast this with the Palestinians' experience with Hamas. It may seem paradoxical, but Hamas is not just a militant terrorist group, it is a very effective charitable organization. It runs private hospitals, schools, and other social services that have earned it understandable respect among the Palestinian people. Given the contrast between the corrupt PLO and the relatively straight-laced Hamas, it is no surprise at all that they were elected.

Could these developments in the Palestinian territories have lessons for America? While corruption is far less of an issue than the unpopular Iraq war, nearly 12 years of power have corrupted congressional Republicans in ways that will undoubtedly hurt the party in fall elections. The Democrats, of course, are not Hamas. They have neither the terrorist baggage nor the straight-laced reputation of the Palestinian party. But they are an alternative. The lesson from Palestine is that voters may elect what would otherwise be a very unpalatable opposition party when faced with unchecked incompetence and corruption by the current leadership. Democratic hopefuls, in short, should certainly take heart.


1. Associated Press, Unpaid Palestinian Police Block Road, Storm Building in Protest, April 15. 2006