In an interview last year, former US Middle East envoy Dennis Ross responded somewhat awkwardly to a question of mine about Palestinian corruption and authoritarianism. I had asked him why the Clinton Administration did not raise an eyebrow when it was clear that the Palestinian Authority was an authoritarian regime and completely corrupt. After a brief pause and an embarrassed glance, Ross said, "Well, it wasn't as if the Israelis were particularly concerned about the problem."
In answering the question as he did, Ross was behaving like the consummate diplomat that he is. The Rabin, Peres and Barak governments, who initiated and went forward with the Oslo process, were actually very interested in Palestinian authoritarianism and corruption. But what interested these governments was encouraging this corrupt dictatorship. Rabin, we recall, defended his choice of PLO chieftain Yasser Arafat as the Palestinian leader by explaining that under the dictatorship of Arafat, the PA would fight terrorism unimpeded by "the Supreme Court and [the human rights organization] B'tselem."
Israeli encouragement of Palestinian corruption was cut from the same cloth as our leaders' support for Arafat's dictatorship. In the early years of Oslo, as the first inklings of Arafat's economic adviser Muhammad Rashid's economic machinations began surfacing, far from discouraging the trend, Israeli political leaders and security brass clamored for meetings with Rashid.
Rather than opposing the systematic terrorization of Palestinian businessmen as Rashid squeezed them out of an ever widening swathe of economic markets, (cement, gas and petroleum, cigarette and mobile telephone imports come to mind most rapidly), Israeli officials dropped all connections to these forcibly disenfranchised businessmen and concentrated all their charms and favors on Rashid and his business partners Palestinian strongmen Muhammad Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub as well as Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and from time to time Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala).
The justification for Israeli encouragement of the undermining of any semblance of financial order or legal system for the Palestinians under Arafat's regime was the stability of the peace process. It was argued, or actually, it was taken for granted, that the concentration of wealth in the hands of Arafat's close associates would give them a vested and personal interest in making peace with Israel.
The same men who enriched themselves at the expense of their own people were considered by Israeli and US policymakers to be the best candidates for forcing acquiescence to peaceful coexistence with Israel down the throats of rank and file Palestinian society.
As the law of unintended consequences would have it, in the end just the opposite occurred. These men, together with their boss and business partner Arafat, increased their hold over Palestinian society as expected, but it was the Israelis, not the Palestinians who developed vested and personal interests in continuing with Oslo.
A number of months ago, this column discussed the corrupting impact of the Shimon Peres Center for Peace on the decision-making capability of top Israeli leaders. As I wrote at the time, the fact that the Government of Norway was one of the center's principal contributors may have had something to do with the $100,000 cash prize that the center presented to UN Special Middle East Coordinator Terje Larsen and his wife, Norwegian Ambassador Mona Juul in 1999. And this fiduciary relationship may also have influenced then-foreign minister Shimon Peres's lone defense of Larsen after he libeled Israel in the immediate aftermath of the bloody battle in Jenin refugee camp during Operation Defensive Shield.
As I also wrote in that column, Yossi Ginossar sits on the Board of Directors of the Peres Center. In a tell-all interview with Ma'ariv last week, Ginossar's business partner, Ozrad Lev gave a detailed account of Swiss bank accounts that he and Ginossar managed for Rashid and Arafat. Lev told of the millions of dollars that he and Ginossar received in kickbacks from Rashid and Arafat for their handling of the funds.
While Lev's account is as disturbing as it is revealing, all it serves to do is expose the worst kept secret in Israel. Since 1994, everyone who is anyone in the top echelons of Israel knew full well that Ginossar, who served as special envoy to Arafat for prime ministers Rabin, Peres, and Barak, was Rashid's business partner. Everyone knew that Ginossar was a partner in Rashid's cement and petroleum monopolies. Everyone knew that Ginossar was Rashid's bagman for funds he siphoned off from the PA treasury accounts.
Everyone knew and everyone either stood by silently or actively supported this situation. And Ginossar is far from the only Israeli official who has accrued financial and professional benefit from his activities with the Palestinian Authority.
In his defense, Ginossar told Ma'ariv, "During the entire period of my activities with the Palestinian Authority and other Arab regional officials on behalf of the state, I acted in accordance with the state's requests to me, using my special connections with the Palestinians as a private citizen."
This is a disingenuous statement. While Ginossar's intimate relations with Rashid and Arafat may have made him attractive to Israeli leaders, there can be no doubt that Ginossar's access to Israeli leaders made him attractive to the Palestinian leadership.
Because of his official position, the Shin Bet, under Ya'acov Perry, Carmi Gillon and Ami Ayalon, gave Ginossar not only free access to intelligence information about the Palestinians, they also gave him free access to Arafat. When Gaza was declared a closed military zone to which Israelis were prohibited from traveling, Ginossar was chauffeured to Arafat's office in Shin Bet armored cars.
In his interview with Ma'ariv, Lev also spoke of Ginossar's partner Stephen Cohen. According to Ma'ariv's account, Cohen, who is deeply embedded in the Jewish American peace camp, opened up Arafat's kingdom to Ginossar when Rabin first appointed him point man with the PA in 1993. Together the two made millions in kickbacks they received from Rashid for their role in the cement and petroleum monopolies he built.
Americans are more familiar with Cohen than Israelis. For over a decade his name has frequently appeared on the op-ed page of The New York Times as columnist Thomas Friedman's in-house Middle East specialist.
According to a top former governmental official, Cohen made a name for himself as an unofficial channel to Egyptian, Syrian, and PLO leaders as far back as the 1980s. What we learn from Ma'ariv's disclosures is that Cohen's impassioned defense of Israeli concessions to the PLO, which he voiced regularly to key officials in the Clinton administration, like Ross's deputy Aaron Miller and media stars like Friedman, may very well have been influenced as much by pecuniary as ideological motivations. Then too, it has been reported that during the Camp David summit, Ginossar was the most fervent advocate of Israeli concessions to Arafat among the Israeli team.
Stephen Cohen has over the years also enjoyed financial backing from US business tycoon Daniel Abraham. Abraham is also one of the largest backers of the Peres Center. Then too, Cohen's close colleague Nimrod Novick was Peres's chief of staff during the 1984-1988 unity government with Yitzhak Shamir and a close associate of Yossi Beilin's.
Yossi Beilin himself has used his Oslo advocacy to draw large foreign contributions to his think tank the Economic Cooperation Foundation. It has been reported that in his capacity as a chief researcher at ECF, Beilin receives a ministerial salary and an unlimited expense account for his world trav
els during which he advances his radical views on the need for Israeli surrender to Palestinian terrorism.
And there are many others as well. The sad fact that comes out of a study of the financial interests of high ranking Israeli officials and international peace activists is that while Arafat, Rashid and their associates pocketed their monies and prepared for war against Israel, these top Israeli officials became their chief advocates. These peace profiteers have for nine and a half years made their personal fortunes by illogically arguing that Arafat is both the problem and the solution – that without his dictatorial consent, Israel will get no peace deal with the Palestinians.
In a column on the subject back in 1994, Friedman quoted Cohen as saying, "Everyone is ready to tell Arafat how to shave his beard, but as long as they treat him only as a problem and not a solution, the problem just gets worse."
The truth is that the problem has gotten worse because so many so-called peace advocates have made personal fortunes by dint of their close relations with Arafat and his cronies. When we look around us, after two years and three months of the PA terror war and wonder how it is possible that Oslo and the corrupt terror regime it spawned still has domestic and international support, we need only to look to the money for our explanation.
Rather than acting as the catalyst for Palestinian support of peaceful coexistence with Israel, Israeli support for and participation in the emergence of the PA as a wholly corrupt authoritarian regime has created a permanent Israeli constituency for Arafat's regime.
In a column in last Friday's Ma'ariv, commenting on Lev's disclosures, prominent Israeli media personality Dan Margalit called for the establishment of a commission of inquiry into Ginossar's financial dealings with the PA. What Margalit probably does not realize is that in calling for the formation of such a commission he is adding his voice to those calling for an inquiry into the entire Oslo process.
Ginossar's double-dealings, corruption, and borderline treason cannot be truly investigated without an impartial (whatever that means) investigation into the entire history of Oslo. As one security source put it to me this week, "Ginossar is never going to be a scapegoat. If he goes down, he'll bring the entire Israeli establishment down ahead of him." If we've learned anything from the past two years and three months, we have learned that this will never happen.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.