Reforms and aspects of good governance in general have always been relevant to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the relations Palestinians and to some extent Israelis have with the outside world. The Palestinian Authority was created in 1994 by the PLO leadership, which to a certain extent also filled its bureaucracy. In that way, the PLO leadership brought its own experience of running the PLO within an Arab context to its new task of running the affairs of the Palestinian people in the occupied Palestinian territories.
From the very beginning there was thus tension between the Palestinians of the occupied territories, who perceived elections as the source of legitimacy and were committed to the public good, including good governance, and the incoming PLO leadership. The elected Legislative Council, through its many special committees, exerted plenty of effort to criticize and try to correct what turned out to be the very controversial approach of the executive authority. But this came too late to avoid the association of bad governance with certain political positions and practices, namely those that were too accommodating to Israeli political demands during the peace process. It was only during the Aqsa Intifada, when the hardliners within Palestinian politics were empowered by their significant role in the resistance to the occupation, that we started to hear powerful voices criticizing bad governance and corruption and calling for reform.
The reformists called for an end to corruption and combined this with the aim to strengthen the Palestinian negotiating position and avoid unnecessary concessions. Together with their resistance this ensured their popularity. This internal shift in the balance of power coincided with an increase in pressure from the international community led by the United States against the Palestinian leadership under late President Yasser Arafat. One way of exerting of this pressure was to exploit the need for reforms. But it had different motives. Some of the international players, notably the US, wanted to reduce the powers of the president by creating the post of prime minister. Others, like the European Union, were pushing for reforms to make their financial contributions more effective.
The Palestinian experience has thus shown that reforms and good governance are heavily politically loaded concepts. Reformists were generally politicians and political movements with less willingness to compromise with Israel, especially on political rights that are guaranteed by the stipulations of international legality. Officials, politicians and political movements associated with corruption were also those more willing to compromise the basic rights of Palestinians and accommodate unjustified Israeli demands.
Nevertheless, the Palestinian public was always, and is still, skeptical when the call for reform comes from abroad, in particular from members of the international community that are, on the political level, willing to close an eye to Israeli violations of the political and human rights of the Palestinians, including the right of independence through an end to the occupation.
In other words, Palestinians rarely believe calls for reform from countries like the US, which at one and the same time say they want good governance from the PA and yet support Israel’s continued occupation and settlement program almost blindly. Regardless of incompetence and corruption it is, after all, the occupation that remains the biggest obstacle to Palestinian governance of any kind.