As Israel and the West try desperately to prevent the West Bank from from falling to Hamas, they ought to bear in mind the two factors cited most often as drivers of Hamas' upset parliamentary election victory in the Palestinian territories in January of 2006: anti-corruption and social services.
Israel, the U.S. and others are funneling hundreds of millions of dollars in withheld tax dollars and aid in order to prop up the shaky position of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been tasked with "institution building" for the Palestinians -- helping revive the economy and foster law and order. Meanwhile the Israelis and official Washington will presumably strive to advance peace talks with Abbas as a way to bolster his credibility with a skeptical populace that doubts he can deliver.
But without careful attention to what have previously been Fatah's fatal flaws -- rampant graft and the failure to deliver on the most basic needs of the populations that depend on it, all these efforts may come to naught. Polls show that corruption was a more important issue for voters in the 2006 parliamentary elections than even the peace process itself. Vigilant accounting, auditing and financial oversight, stringent anti-nepotism and cronyism, and an energetic emphasis on the provision of basic services are essential to ensuring that the massive inflow of money does not go to waste, and that the West Bank population does not once again turn away from Fatah in abject frustration.
There are valid questions about the degree to which foreign governments and multilateral organizations can succeed where Abbas and Fatah themselves have failed: if the party is incapable of cracking down on abuses from within and competently delivering services, there's only so much outsiders can do. But given the high stakes attached to maintaining a foothold for Palestinian moderation, and the vast reserves of money and political capital being invested in that effort, it seems worth the effort to pressure, cajole, bolster, buttress, train, support and supervise a robust anti-corruption and service delivery effort by Fatah.
For example, why not mobilize a task force of hundreds of auditors and accountants to Fatah local authorities throughout the West Bank to make sure that newly-freed monies are well-spent and accounted for? There are NGOs that specialize in recruiting retired and otherwise available financial professionals as volunteers for just such tasks. While one cannot expect former financial controllers from Scandinavia or Peoria to cut off the money trails to Fatah-linked militants, their presence and involvement could reinforce discipline and deter misuses of funds.
Fatah also needs urgent international help to buttress social services and humanitarian aid to neglected populations under its control. The obstacle is not dollars. Hamas reportedly spent between $40-75M on its social services programs in 2005, a fraction of the $339M disbursed by the UN's relief agencies in the same region that year. The trick is putting into place a web of independent, non-political local organizations capable of credibly and competently distributing aid and carrying out social services projects like building and running clinics and schools.
The US has learned in Iraq that socio-economic reconstruction is anything but easy. But the UN-affiliated global relief agencies -- UNHCR, World Food Programme, for example, -- have built reputations for cost-effective and smart aid delivery throughout the world. A dozen or so private non-governmental organizations have developed the same expertise. Corps comprised of some of the best professionals from these organizations could be tasked with putting together a program for the West Bank that would rival anything Hamas has ever offered. The European Union and national aid agencies from Scandinavia, Japan and elsewhere also have both resources and expertise to offer.
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is cited by analysts as a root cause underlying everything from global terrorism to the insurgency in Iraq to Iran's nuclear ambitions. Fatah's shaky foothold in the West Bank is widely seen as the last, best chance of securing a Palestinian negotiating partner capable of concluding a peace agreement with Israel.