Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images
Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas looks on during a press conference on March 9, 2015 in Bern. Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images
Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

Want To Really Help Refugees?

As Abbas speaks at the U.N. General Assembly, demand the Palestinians return the aid money they’ve mishandled for decades

Liel Leibovitz
September 24, 2015
Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images
Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas looks on during a press conference on March 9, 2015 in Bern. Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Forget the pope: The only truly important dignitary visiting New York for the United Nations General Assembly this week is Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. That’s because Abbas, unlike most of his powerful peers, may actually hold the key to world peace.

Don’t laugh. If the strong signals coming from the rais’ office are to be believed, Abbas is likely to take the stage next Wednesday and declare the Oslo Accords dead. This, to all but a handful of sentimentalists, nearly all of whom live in Tel Aviv, is a major opportunity. If Abbas truly believes the age of Oslo to be over, there’s a good argument to be made that he ought to give back every shekel his people have received in international aid for the past 21 years.

If this strikes you as ridiculous or cruel, take a moment to revisit the financial records. That is, if you can find them: In 2013, the European Court of Auditors, an independent E.U. regulatory body set up to monitor the union’s income and spending, discovered that $2.64 billion of European aid investment in the West Bank and Gaza between 2008 and 2012 alone was squandered—lost to mismanagement and corruption. Look back further, to Oslo’s early, euphoric days, and you’ll discover many more billions you just can’t find.

Where did all the money go? Recent leaked documents give two anecdotally instructive looks into the lifestyles of the Palestinian rich and famous, paid for by the kindness of strangers. In one instance, Majdi al-Khaldi, a close Abbas adviser, asked Bahrain’s foreign minister for $4 million to pay for the construction of a luxury gated community for top P.A. officials. This, al-Khaldi wrote, was necessary in order to resist nearby settlements, even though there were no settlements nearby. For Nazmi Muhanna, the general director of the Palestinian Crossing and Borders Authority, the political was personal: He syphoned off nearly $10,000 to send his daughter to a fancy private school in Jordan. Still, he was better than the former leader of Fatah in Gaza, Mohammed Dahlan, who celebrated the nuptials of his son in Cairo earlier this summer with a modest party that cost $2 million, including an Oscar de la Renta gown inlaid with hundreds of jewels and pearls. Even if you take into account the economic hardships of a society struggling against foreign military presence in its midst, the P.A. has still received, to use a technical term for a moment, oodles of cash, several Marshall Plans’ worth, and has no schools, no roads, and no other forms of infrastructure to show for it. The cash spent on fancy homes and bejeweled designer dresses is now lost to us, but if we do our due diligence, it’s possible we’ll still find much of the foreign money piled, undisturbed, in Swiss bank accounts belonging to Abbas and company.

Which is why we ought to demand that the Palestinian Authority give the money back.

Not, heaven forbid, back to the kind Americans or the nice Europeans who signed all those checks. Instead—and this is where the world peace bit comes in—Abbas should stand up at the General Assembly and announce that he’ll be repaying all of the money he and his cronies have stolen or squandered to the Arab refugees everywhere scrambling for shelter these days. This, too, isn’t much of a stretch. There are currently 560,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria. The international aid agency charged with caring for them, UNRWA, requires $415.4 million to meet its minimum needs. If Abbas gave back only the cash the European Court of Auditors could prove had been misplaced during one four-year period, he could cover that amount more than six times over and get a Nobel Prize to match Arafat’s.

Such a moment—a leader using his resources to alleviate the suffering of his own people—would be truly transformative. But on the off chance that it fails to materialize, given the slight possibility that the gathering in New York this week fails to produce global harmony and prosperity, we may want to question our policy toward Palestinian aid and heed the warning of our smartest Jeremiahs, who, like Jonathan Schanzer, have long been warning that ignoring the question of Palestinian governance, or the lack thereof, is a mistake we can’t afford to repeat.

Instead of throwing good money after bad, let’s treat the billions funneled to the P.A. as a long-term option that has, like Oslo, just expired. We’ve much more deserving recipients waiting on deck in Yarmouk, floating on dinghies in the Aegean, crowding train cars in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. True champions of progressive ideals should love everything about this plan: This is what a righteous redistribution of wealth truly looks like.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.