The best customer service in Israel is offered by Palestinian car thieves. I know. When our Ford Taurus was stolen recently, the thieves very politely offered to sell it back to us.
As upsetting as it was, the episode would hardly merit attention except as a cautionary tale about the seductions of trying to cut a rational deal with criminals. It also speaks volumes about how the Palestinian Authority is governed and how this affects its relations with Israel.
The saga began one night not long ago, when thieves picked two fairly sophisticated locks on our house and came in without a rustle while we were still awake. They took car keys, credit cards, cell phones, and other valuables. We later learned that operatives from Arafat's personal security guard, Force 17, were seen driving our car and had been involved in the theft. They'd reportedly been trained in sterile break-in techniques, sniper shooting, and other such skills by the CIA. The idea was to make Arafat's forces better able to fight terrorism, but the Palestinians are putting their know-how to other purposes.
The thieves apparently had no trouble neutralizing the car's coded locking mechanism, two alarm systems, and satellite-tracking device (all required by insurers in Israel). They also managed to evade the many roadblocks with which Israel has tried to encircle Palestinian towns in order to stop car bombs from reaching Israeli cities. These roadblocks, which photograph so well and make such potent television symbols of Israeli oppression, have more holes than Swiss cheese.
So some 70,000 stolen cars are transferred annually from Israel to the Palestinian Authority, along with a great deal of industrial and farm equipment, whole dental clinics (several in one night in Jerusalem recently, plus a complete wood-working factory), hospital labs, herds of cattle, beehives, anything thieves can lay hands on with the complicity of the Palestinian Authority. Some of this loot they use themselves, but much of it they sell to Israeli fences. The only Israelis who can enter Hamas strongholds in Gaza and come out alive are the fences.
The operations are very professional. Stolen cars are mostly disassembled within minutes and sold as spare parts. Our highly taxed cars (the tax at least doubles the dealer's price) sell for $ 25,000 to $ 50,000, but fetch only between $ 2,000 and $ 4,000 when sold in parts. The car thieves earn a mere $ 150 per heist, so they steal several cars a night, sometimes simply carting them away with tow-trucks marked as municipal traffic clearance vehicles.
Ford sells few Tauruses in Israel, so there was little demand for our car's parts. It was also too modest a car in the Ramallah market, glutted with cheap stolen Volvos, Mercedes, BMWs, and Lexuses. So the thieves concluded their best bet was to sell the Taurus back to us.
We got a call from a very soft-spoken, courteous gentleman, an Israeli Arab, who told us in graceful Hebrew that he'd been shopping around Ramallah for a cheap car. He found our Taurus too pricey. So he decided to make a couple of bucks by helping the thieves sell it back to us. He claimed they wanted $ 4,000, a fifth of its value on the normal used-car market.
After several bargaining sessions, all in good humor, we settled on $ 1,500. It seemed reasonable to swallow our pride and pay up, since otherwise, even after collecting insurance, we would be $ 10,000 out of pocket if we replaced the car. But we had to arrange a safe venue and mode of transaction. First we asked the thieves to return valuable records left in the car, as proof that they actually had it. They demanded payment, but then agreed to leave the papers with a vegetable vendor just inside the boundary of the Palestinian Authority as a gesture of goodwill. A Palestinian friend retrieved them.
I was then invited to Ramallah, capital of the Palestinian Authority, to bring the ransom and collect the car. I was promised a delicious meal afterwards in one of Ramallah's best restaurants. My interlocutor was a bit offended when I declined, explaining that I could not rely on his word that he would not rob me and then speed away with our car; or worse, that I would not be hacked to pieces, as has occasionally befallen Israelis who've innocently wandered into Palestinian towns.
The thieves retaliated. Why should they take my word that I wouldn't turn them in to the police if they came to East Jerusalem? Still, we concluded amicably that I would find an Israeli Arab who would do the honors, in no man's land.
So I called Dr. Ahmed Tibi, a personal adviser and close confidant of Arafat. He is a member of Israel's parliament, representing a radical Arab nationalist party that advocates the transformation of Israel into a state without affiliation to its Jewish past or present; that is, its eventual conversion into another Arab state. Dr. Tibi has kindly assisted several Israeli movers and shakers to retrieve their expensive stolen cars through his good offices with Chairman Arafat, who lays down the law in the Authority even among thieves. But Tibi has been forced to stop performing this service, he explained, lest he spend all his time retrieving stolen cars. He graciously referred me to his parliamentary assistant, who also knew the ropes, he assured me.
The assistant confirmed that he could arrange things, especially after I informed him that my car had been seen in the hands of his close friend Abu Awad, the commander of Ramallah's Force 17.
But right after my call to parliamentarian Tibi, our gentle middleman disappeared. It turned out someone higher up had requisitioned the car. Arab friends reported seeing it emblazoned with the Palestinian Authority's official red plates. It sported blinking lights and a siren, as befit its elevated status. I almost felt proud.
But then Israel encircled Ramallah, to prevent Abu Awad and his Force 17 guys from delivering a car bomb. I gave up and bought a new car. I also prayed that our Taurus would never be brought into Israel, as car bombs generally are, under the immunity of its Israeli license plates, its spacious baggage compartment stuffed full of explosives, nails, and cooking gas containers, the better to tear apart and incinerate as many passers-by as possible.
Oslo has conditioned Israelis to be "reasonable," that is, to make dangerous concessions even when the other side is not reasonable. In pursuit of an elusive peace, Israeli leaders, egged on by State Department peacemakers, kept ignoring Arafat's continued support for violence. And they turned a blind eye to Arafat's complicity in a huge transfer of wealth from Israel to the Authority through robbery and theft.
Income from crime has become a significant part of the earnings of the Palestinian Authority's inhabitants, impoverished by Arafat's undeclared war on Israel. Crime enriches the middle level bosses of the Authority's agencies and security services (the top guys get to steal millions in U.S. and European Union aid), and supplements the small salaries that the Palestinian Authority, by far the largest employer, pays its 140,000 employees, who include 70,000 soldiers and "security personnel" (masquerading as policemen), many thousands of bureaucrats, and Arafat's army of sycophants and hangers-on. The Palestinians who have become criminals are more dependent than ever on the Authority and afraid of its nine security services. Uncertainty about their livelihood binds them in absolute loyalty to the source of all authority and funding, the boss of bosses, Yasser Arafat. By incessant indoctrination and hate-mongering, Arafat redirects all their frustration against Israel.
Since the current Intifada started last September, Palestinian wages have fallen to around $ 100 a month, and unemployment has risen to about 50 percent, especially among youths (which explains why so many are available for demonstrations). So stealing cars has become a desirable occupation. It is practically risk free. When caught, car thieves are slapped with a small fine and given probation by Israel's liberal judges, hardly a deterrent considering the rewards.
Our story, then, is all about how criminal activity, when it becomes the norm, erodes the standards that make life in society possible (indeed, crime and misrule now terrorize most Palestinian Arabs, who live under a regime of protection rackets). It looked eminently reasonable to pay a small sum to the thieves and get our car back rather than spend a large sum on a replacement -- just as it looked eminently reasonable to give Arafat some territory and let him establish a state, however oppressive and corrupt, so that peace at last could reign. But in both cases, it turned out to be foolhardy to think that criminals suddenly will keep their word, respect agreements, and refrain from violence.
It is true, as Oslo's advocates pleaded, that enemies are who you make peace with, and reasons of state sometimes compel you to let a thief off the hook. But it is also true that whatever deal one strikes with criminals or terrorists must be rigorously tested by gradual and careful implementation, in full awareness of the risks. Otherwise you end up paying the ransom but not getting your car back -- or, in the case of Israel under Oslo, giving up vital strategic assets only to establish a terrorist state next-door and usher in a new era of bloodshed.
Daniel Doron is director of the Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress.