Outlines Emerge Of Future State In the West Bank

RAMALLAH, West Bank — As preparations intensify for a Palestinian-Israeli summit meeting in Washington on Thursday, the crude outlines of a Palestinian state are emerging in the West Bank, with increasingly reliable security forces, a more disciplined government and a growing sense among ordinary citizens that they can count on basic services.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — As preparations intensify for a Palestinian-Israeli summit meeting in Washington on Thursday, the crude outlines of a Palestinian state are emerging in the West Bank, with increasingly reliable security forces, a more disciplined government and a growing sense among ordinary citizens that they can count on basic services.

Personal checks, long shunned as being unredeemable, are now widely accepted. Traffic tickets are issued and paid, movie theaters are opening and public parks are packed with families late into the summer nights. Economic growth in the first quarter of this year was 11 percent over the same period in 2009, the International Monetary Fund says.

“I’ve never seen Nablus so alive,” Caesar Darwazeh, who owns a photography studio, said on Sunday night as throngs of people enjoyed balloons and popcorn, a four-wagon train taking merrymakers through the streets.

Of course, the West Bank remains occupied by Israel. It is filled with scores of Israeli settlements, some 10,000 Israeli troops and numerous roadblocks and checkpoints that render true ordinary life impossible for the area’s 2.5 million Palestinians.

The central question facing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority is under what circumstances Israel might yield its control over the bulk of this territory to the emerging Palestinian state apparatus.

Most analysts remain skeptical of such a deal emerging soon, given a history of failed promises — and entrenched interests on both sides that oppose even the concept of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem.

There are few signs of a breakthrough. Mr. Abbas and his aides insist that Palestinian refugees have the right to return to their homes in what is today Israel, which for many Israelis would be tantamount to ending the existence of the Jewish state.

Palestinian officials say their central demand at the start of the talks is for the current settlement-building moratorium to be extended. Mr. Netanyahu and his aides have so far rejected that.

A top Netanyahu aide, however, said that if Mr. Abbas accepted — even privately when the two leaders meet alone — an end to the conflict with Israel and its Jewish identity, “the whole conventional wisdom can change very quickly.”

And these talks, the first direct negotiations in nearly two years with 17 years of failed diplomatic efforts behind them, have one advantage that past rounds have lacked: a West Bank administration that to many Israelis and Palestinians alike has begun to resemble, tentatively, a functioning state.

A senior Israeli Army commander, speaking under army rules of anonymity, said security coordination with the Palestinian forces was better than it had ever been. Unlike the situation in 2000, he said, when Washington-sponsored peace talks failed and the West Bank exploded in violence, the area is stable because of both its economic growth and a strong security situation.

“We probably have a year of stability if that happens,” he said of the prospect of failed negotiations. As much as he praised his Palestinian colleagues, however, he insisted that stability, for now, required an Israeli military presence.

Israeli troops leave security in the cities to the Palestinians during the day. But the commander said that they carried out four or five operations a night — down from a dozen a year ago — and that without those actions the situation would deteriorate: armed groups from Hamas and others would attack Israelis.

The commander noted that while there could be no long-term stability without a political deal, once the talks start, stability will be linked to them. If they fail, those among Jewish settlers and Palestinians who promote violence could take steps to disrupt the talks or exploit a sense of defeat, he said.

He said that Israel could remove more checkpoints and Palestinian economic growth could continue, “but anyone who thinks this will be enough to keep the area stable over the long term is wrong.”

He added that unless and until Israel hands over responsibility to the Palestinian forces, Israeli forces could not reduce their nightly interventions.

The Palestinian security chief, Diab el-Ali, rejected that in a recent interview, saying that the Israeli raids were an embarrassment and that he wanted them to stop. He said the Palestinians were capable of providing full security.

A Western security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the situation publicly, said Israeli interventions and troop numbers could and should be cut further. But he thought that the Palestinian forces, while making progress, were not yet able to take control.

A main challenge facing the Palestinian Authority is Hamas, the Islamist group that rejects Israel’s existence and controls Gaza, where 1.5 million Palestinians live. Hamas and Mr. Abbas’s more secular Fatah party are fierce rivals, and the prospect of reconciliation between them seems low. Hamas followers in the West Bank could play the part of spoilers, although the Palestinian and Israeli security forces work to keep them on the defensive.

The American notion is that if talks with Mr. Abbas are successful, he will gain political strength as the deal is put into effect, and that strength could ultimately be used to return his party to power in Gaza. Israelis remain skeptical, however.

Much of the credit for the positive changes in the West Bank go to Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, who is halfway through a two-year plan to build institutions and infrastructure for a Palestinian state. In the past year, he has opened 34 schools and 44 housing complexes, planted 370,000 trees and increased tax revenue by 20 percent.

“We have had 11 governments since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, and we never got anything from any of them until this one,” remarked Ahmad Douqan, a leader in the Balata refugee camp near Nablus. “People in the camp look at Salam as someone who, more than anyone else, works for them.”

Mr. Fayyad is imposing discipline on his bloated bureaucracy, taking away free cars and cellphones from officials. He has reduced the authority’s dependence on outside budgetary aid, from $1.8 billion in 2008 to a projected $1.2 billion in 2010, according to Oussama Kanaan, head of the International Monetary Fund mission to the West Bank and Gaza.

“The Palestinian Authority is determined to follow the path of fiscal consolidation with a view to substantially reducing reliance on foreign aid for government expenditures,” Mr. Fayyad said at a news briefing on Monday.

Mr. Kanaan said the goal for 2011 was to bring the dependence below $1 billion. “The trend is good,” he said in an interview. “Due to the reforms, there is no case to be made for withholding aid. The situation is very different from three years ago.”

Source: nytimes.com