A day or two after the signing of the Oslo Accords on September 13, 1993, I attended a meeting at a think tank in Washington to discuss the economic prospects of an independent Palestinian state.  One of the speakers outlined a very economically bullish vision for the new Palestine—the West Bank plus the Gaza Strip.  First, tourists would flood the area—Christian pilgrims to Bethlehem, and northern Europeans to Gaza’s beaches.  Commerce would probably flourish, with Palestine becoming a financial center for the Arab world.  Then the Palestinians, known as the “Jews of the Arab World,” and the Israelis would help transform Palestine into the “Singapore of the Middle East.”  At that, the audience applauded.

Indeed, during the booming and swinging years of the 1990’s, everyone was applying East Asian models to forecast a productive and rosy future for their economies.  Yasser Arafat envisioned the area becoming the “Hong Kong of the Middle East,” a small strip of land on which hundreds of thousands of hard-working Arab and foreign entrepreneurs would lay the foundations for a world-class business center.

One of the participants in the think-tank event sounded a bit skeptical.  “In theory, you might be right,” he responded to the Palestine-as-Singapore proposal.  After all, the Palestinians, Christians and Muslims alike, are indeed very industrious and hard-working people, more educated and cosmopolitan than those of other Arab communities.  Many of the Palestinians who have immigrated to the Persian Gulf, North America, and Europe have earned multiple academic degrees and have made a lot of money.  In fact, according to a recent study, Palestinian Christian citizens of Israel have the highest level of education and wealth per capita in the state.  In theory, there is no reason why they and their compatriots would not be able to excel and prosper in East Jerusalem, Ramallah, or, for that matter, Gaza City.  Lebanon and the emerging dynamic economic centers of Dubai and Qatar have demonstrated that there is no reason why, in theory, the Arab Middle East could not produce its own version of Singapore and Hong Kong.  But, as the skeptic pointed out, “in theory, Congo, endowed with huge reserves of natural resources and vast potential wealth should have, by now, become one of the world’s richest countries.”

Unfortunately, to apply one of the most worn-out clichés in the book of Friedman-ism (Tom, not Milton), when it came to Palestine and many other parts of the Arab Middle East (including even Lebanon), the Olive Tree—that symbol of nationalism, ethnicity, and religion—has overpowered the Computer Chip (economic progress).  Moreover, Arafat and his cohorts of the corrupt and bloody—and worst of all, incompetent—warlords of the ruling Fatah movement are just the latest example of the way failed leaders of some national movements (the Irish, the Kurds, the Armenians, and even the Poles come to mind) can guide their people to the gates of Hell and never-ending repression and suffering, instead of to the Promised Land of freedom.

Leaders of “failed nations” refrain from sharing in the responsibility for the tragic fate of their people and like to engage in “victimology,” blaming everything (geography, history, bad luck) and everyone (the “other,” great powers, the “international community”) for their misery.  And sometimes, they do have a point.  Forty years of “enlightened” Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, coupled with the appropriation of Palestinian land, the establishment of illegal Jewish settlements, the military repression, and the destruction of the Palestinian economy, is responsible for a great deal of the individual and collective suffering of the residents of the West Bank and Gaza.  The Israelis must be faulted for their failure to get rid of the refugee camps in the occupied Arab territories and should attempt to resettle their residents.  And, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the Israeli offers in the 2000 Camp David negotiations were not so “generous” as Jerusalem and Washington had spun them, and the responsibility for the failure of those talks did not fall squarely on the shoulders of the Palestinians.

The current mess in Palestine/Israel, not unlike the mess in the Persian Gulf and the Levant, has been a direct result of the Bush administration’s policies and, more specifically, the contradictions between its Wilsonian pretensions of spreading political and economic freedom in the Middle East and its more calculated goals of maintaining U.S. hegemony in the region.  Hence, rejecting the advice of both the Israeli government and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Washington pressed for open and free elections in Palestine.  Then, to the surprise of the Bush administration, the very first one resulted in the defeat of Abbas’s corrupt and ineffective Fatah party and in the triumph of Hamas, which had clearly stated its refusal to recognize Israel and its commitment to an Islamist political agenda that runs contrary to American values and interests.

Just as the elections in Iraq brought to power a Shiite regime with ties to Iran, and just as the elections in Lebanon strengthened the power of the Shiite Hezbollah, the election in Palestine handed power to the offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood that opposes the idea of peace in Israel.  In response, not only did the Bush administration decide against engaging the new Hamas government in hopes of reaching interim accords, it also took steps, backed by the European Union, to isolate the Hamas government diplomatically and economically, and pressed Abbas and Fatah to form a counterbalancing center of power against Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank.  And the Bush administration was certainly not supportive of an agreement between Hamas and Fatah, reached under Saudi mediation, to form a national-unity government.

Instead, the White House encouraged the Israelis to arm the security forces allied with Abbas, forces led by Fatah’s Mohammed Dahlan, who lives in Gaza and who is known for his close ties to the Americans and the Israelis.  Fearing an anti-Hamas insurgency led by Dahlan, in late June, Hamas security forces attacked and eventually devastated the Dahlan-led Fatah guerillas in Gaza, establishing full control in that area.  That was a clear upset for the American strategy of crushing Hamas.  And President Bush and his aides are now trying to spin that setback by proposing to help form the nucleus of a Western-oriented Palestinian entity led by Abbas and his Fatah faction in the West Bank, while continuing to isolate and eventually strangle Hamas-controlled Gaza.

So, yes, the Americans have exhibited a lack of even-handedness in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Bush and his neoconservative aides helped turn a bloody mess into a bloody catastrophe.  At the end of the day, however, it’s the ineptitude and corruption of the Palestinian “leaders” that has brought the Palestinian people to this tragic point in their history, in which Gaza City is looking less and less like Singapore and Hong Kong and more and more like Mogadishu or Grozny.  This is a tragedy not only for the Palestinians but for the Israelis, who, like their Siamese twins, are doomed to share the territory of the Holy Land with them for many years to come.