IT SEEMS that the ageing politicians who appear on the official Palestine television station are in “urgent need” of a makeover. So, at least, said one of the channel’s directors in a letter to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president. He proposed hiring a make-up artist, a prestigious one who has “already worked with several international stations.” Her fee, though, was $12,000 per month—roughly what the average Palestinian will earn in four years. Many such average people are distinctly unimpressed by that kind of extravagance. The document, published last month on a local website, is the latest scandal to roil Palestinian politics. In August it was a letter from an Abbas adviser, begging the foreign minister of Bahrain for $4 million to build an exclusive housing complex for Palestinian officials. Education officials, meanwhile, have been accused of selling off a batch of 1,000 medical scholarships offered by the Venezuelan government.
The Palestinian Authority (PA), the limited self-governing body in the occupied territories, has been plagued by waste, graft and accusations of both since its inception in 1994 following the Oslo accords. When auditors looked at the books three years later, they concluded that nearly 40% of the budget had been frittered away. By 2006, according to the PA’s own attorney-general, officials had embezzled some $700m.
Aman, a local watchdog group, claims that the bloated public-sector payroll includes an unknown number of “ghost employees” whose salaries line the pockets of managers and ministers. There are ghost businesses, too, like a $6m joint Palestinian-Italian venture to build a pipe factory that existed only on paper.
Western donors, who give the PA about a sixth of its annual budget, have periodically threatened to withhold aid. Their concerns were alleviated by the appointment in 2007 Salam Fayyad as prime minister. A respected economist and a longtime IMF official, he took solid steps to combat graft, and millions of dollars were recovered during his tenure.
Mr Fayyad resigned in 2013, however, and Mr Abbas quickly turned the anti-corruption effort into a cudgel to use against his enemies. Last year he ordered an investigation into the legal status and finances of some 2,800 NGOs in the Palestinian territories. The goal, he said, was to make them “transparent and accountable.” Critics, though, saw it as an attempt to muzzle civil society. Mr Fayyad himself was caught up in the sweep: his development institute’s bank accounts were frozen in June on vague charges of money laundering.
The most prominent target is Mohammad Dahlan, once a prominent member of Mr Abbas’s Fatah party and now thought to be planning a run for the presidency from his exile in Abu Dhabi. He is acused of having siphoned millions of shekels from Gaza’s tax authority in the 1990s. A PA court dismissed corruption charges against him in April, however, ruling that he still enjoyed parliamentary immunity.
Asked to name the “most serious problem” in their society, 24% of Palestinians say it is corruption—only slightly below the 28% who point to the Israeli occupation. Four-fifths believe their leaders are corrupt. A new poll found that, for the first time, more than half of them want to dissolve the authority altogether. “A majority believes that it has become a burden,” said Khalil Shikaki, who carried out the poll. Perhaps not even a $12,000 makeover can help.