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Could Israel Offer Palestinians What Their Own Leaders Won’t – Hope?

After the deadly Hamas-led riots last week at the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel, Gazans were asking of Hamas, the terrorist group that rules Gaza, what it had accomplished by ratcheting up the violence. One young man told The New York Times that nothing was accomplished by the violence, adding, “People are dead. They deceived us that we would breach the fence. But that didn’t happen.”

The Times reported further, “Hamas is no closer to improving the lives of increasingly restless Gazans. The group lacks money to even pay public employees’ salaries or other expenses of governing.”

While the residents of Gaza are no closer to independence than they were at the end of March, when Hamas started the weekly riots, called the Great March of Return, neither are the Palestinians of the West Bank, ruled by the Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Abbas who is now in the fourteenth year of a four-year term as president, has recently been hospitalized. Though he’s in his 80s and in uncertain health, he says that the PA will not negotiate with Israel as long as Donald Trump is president. His possible mortality has not moved him to seek a historic capstone to his career, a Palestinian state, and prefers to brood that the terms of that state would not be to his liking.

Neither Hamas, nor the Palestinian Authority offer any positive vision for the future. They offer more conflict with Israel but no vision of independence. Hamas may be more explicit about it, but in his more than thirteen years as PA president, Abbas has turned down one peace offer, and scuttled other chances at negotiation.

Israel is now uniquely positioned to steer much of the Palestinian society in a better direction, through strategic collaboration with Palestinian companies and individuals, who, for at least pragmatic reasons, are willing to engage with the Jewish state.

Additionally, Israel could reach out to Palestinian children who are brainwashed by their corrupt government-run schools and other institutions under PA control. For instance, Israel could present them additional opportunities to move out of that climate and be introduced to a better education.

Joint cultural programs that are not merely private efforts of small groups of peace activists, but which are actively encouraged and promoted by the Israeli government, will help build trust with those portions of the Palestinian society that are looking for a way out of the hopelessness of their undemocratic society. That, of course does not mean compromising on security matters.

That also does not mean that Israel should accept full responsibility for the Palestinian education. That would contribute to the false narrative of occupation, and further entrench the Palestinian society into an unhealthy mindset of dependency. However, Palestinian children and young people should have an opportunity to participate in alternative educational and cultural programs, encouraged to ask questions, and be paired with volunteer mentors and social groups that will help them form life-affirming paradigms and pursue constructive directions in life.

In economic matters too, Israel could play a role in cultivating a more moderate Palestinian society. In April, Karim Fanadka, an Israeli-Arab tech entrepreneur wrote about how the Israeli-Arab tech sector had grown in just a decade’s time. Fanadka noted that “With a collaborative effort between the non-profit sector, the government, and the tech industry, Arab techies went from 350 to 4,000 –a 1000% increase– in ten years.”  There is no reason similar effort can’t be attempted with the Palestinian sector.

For Israel adopting such a strategy means adopting a pragmatic approach of outreach and relationship building starting with small mutually beneficial trust-building social steps that will change the image of Israel’s government from a monolithic entity that can only run on one platform to an entity that not only talks, but listens.

The prospects of reforming any one society overnight are of course not realistic. But changing a strategy to take advantage of an adversary’s vulnerability is central to good governance and forward-looking thinking. What Netanyahu has already effectively done in Africa, creating new relationships, where previously there seemed little common ground, he can effectively bring home and replicate in the vicinity, likely with at least some positive outcome.

Bringing in potential supporters is not a weakness. Rather, by extending the theme of Israel’s anthem “HaTikvah” to people who have otherwise lost hope could be a way to take away valuable ground from one’s enemies. Hamas and Abbas thrive on social divisions and fearmongering and have brought few benefits to the Palestinians through their misrule.

In 1981, Menahem Milson, in “How to Make Peace with the Palestinians,” observed that both Israel and the United States consistently treated radical and moderate Palestinian leaders the same, sometimes even favoring radical leaders as allegedly more authentic and honest. He also noted that the Israeli leadership mistakenly allowed the PLO at that time to monopolize the governance among the Palestinians. This allowed the PLO to gain the mantle of legitimacy, and allowed it to control lower level officials, such as local mayors, who became wholly subservient to a monolithic and radically anti-Israel organization. Both of those political errors haunt us to this day, and yet, to a great extent, have become the sacred cows of Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution parlance.

Perhaps Prime Minister Netanyahu could demonstrate visionary leadership by taking steps to break down these two obstacles to reaching the majority of Palestinians. Breaking down the control over Palestinian discourse exercised by the likes of Abbas should be a top priority.

A second step would be to identify and encourage pragmatic leaders who are willing to compromise and crack down on incitement. Such a step would be a major contribution towards the evolution of the Palestinian society.

Third, for far too long the civil society building sphere among the Palestinians has been dominated by anti-Israel European NGOs. The likes of the BDS founder Omar Barghouti have taken advantage of this monopoly over ideas to twist the best instincts about improving society into the direction of victim mentality and finger pointing instead. Perhaps Israel, the United States, and other pragmatic countries, should develop and encourage historically successful NGOs, which could train and educate nascent political parties and candidates in the art of running elections, — building a case against the soft bigotry of low expectations many Westerners have about the openness of the Arab world to liberalization and due process.

The West has learned the limits of democratic elections with no underlying respect for the rule of law or basic morality from the sad tale of democratically elected Hamas, which radicalized Gaza residents, created an ongoing security debacle, and failing its own constituents. However, Israel’s Arab allies can provide valuable backing of alternative approaches to Palestinian governance. They should abandon Palestinian leadership, but not the Palestinian society.

Along with Israel and the United States, they should monitor Palestinian education and work stringently towards revising mandatory curriculum. Israel and other Arab countries can partner in countering extremist ideology by introducing respect for humanity into social discourse – and through business ventures which encourage forward looking entrepreneurs. Rather than being a pawn of political games in the Middle East, the Palestinians may have an opportunity to become a cultural bridge between Israel and other Arab societies.

Most importantly for Israel, however, extending a hand of friendship, not just wary coexistence, to their immediate neighbors, may finally bring Israel one step closer to triumphing over the hate-based ideology. Palestinians who have pride in themselves and their own sense of accomplishments will not need condescending checks with instructions from the Europeans how to behave. They will be able to stand tall and proud alongside Israel and contribute in a way many never thought they could or ever would.