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Democracy in the Middle East

Guest Column Jake Solomon

Among various explanations for the colossal failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, one crucial flaw overshadows all others. The architects of the peace process tragically ignored the need of the Palestinian people for true self-rule i.e. democracy. Instead, the diplomats who initiated the peace process effectively appointed Yasser Arafat as a military dictator, with the hope that he would use his military authority to impose peace on his people.

From a historical perspective, one cannot help but notice the fallacy inherent in appointing a dictator to bring peace. Indeed, dictators inevitably confront conflicts between their personal interests and the interests of their nations, and in preferring their personal interests to those of their nations, naturally pit their nations against themselves. Hence, with few exceptions in history, dictators have uniformly led their countries into war with the eminently understandable aim of unifying their people against a common enemy besides themselves.

In particular, no one contests that Arafat has siphoned immense fortunes of international aid intended for the Palestinian refugees into his and his cronies’ personal coffers, leaving his people living in dire poverty in cramped refugee camps. At the same time, to preserve his authority, he mercilessly suppresses any serious attempt to dissent from his often misguided policy. So that his people would not rebel against him, he had no choice but to encourage their animosity toward Israel. Long before the current intifada, the Palestinian Authority routinely violated the terms of the Oslo Accords concerning arms control. Palestinian school textbooks have consistently shown maps of the Middle East without Israel, and incite their readers to violence against Israel. According to The New York Times, before the current intifada came about, special summer camps run by the Palestinian Authority were training tens of thousands of Palestinian teenagers in the use of firearms, and guerilla warfare techniques. A Palestinian 16-year-old interviewed in the article defined Palestinian freedom as including “having Jerusalem and then the rest of Israel.”

Not surprisingly, no small number of critics have predicted the failure of the peace talks from the very beginning, suggesting an endless number of alternative approaches. The extreme right advocates a negotiated population transfer to realize Palestinian national independence in Jordan under the government of King Abdullah. Needless to say, such an approach to resolving the conflict overlooks the fundamental reason for the violence in the Middle East. Absolute rulers do not rule for the good of their people.

Radical leftists advocate a one-state solution that would require Israel to accept all the Palestinian refugees as citizens. In theory, Israel would become a binational democratic state for both Jews and Palestinians. However, the bloody ethnic conflicts that have arisen in the wake of the collapse of such multi-national states in Lebanon, the former USSR and former Yugoslavia raise doubt as to the viability of this doctrine. History emphatically confirms that individual nations prefer to independently determine their own unique future, i.e., nations naturally seek national self-determination.

Furthermore, the Palestinians in their current condition would destabilize any democratic regime, whether they built it for themselves or whether they shared it with Israelis. Indeed, because of the freedom a democracy grants its citizens including the would-be tyrants among them, the citizens of a democracy must never cease to share and actively advocate their firm conviction that democracy must stand. Following World War I, Germany, despite ranking among the most intellectually advanced countries in the world, failed to sustain a democratic regime because of lack of conviction that democracy alone could preserve their well-being. Germany’s history of monarchic rule combined with an intense desire for revenge after World War I proved too great a challenge for German advocates of democracy. Instead, appointing Hitler as dictator, Germany led the world into World War II, despite the territorial appeasement that France and Great Britain agreed to in the annexation of Czechoslovakia.

The history of the Palestinians will not prove any less of a challenge for their advocates of democracy. They have fought a losing battle against Israel since before its inception, and they have suffered at the hands of tyrannical rulers all the while, from Arafat, and King Hussein of Jordan, to the British mandate and the Ottoman Empire. The other nations in the region, with the exception of Israel, despite their relatively more favorable histories, have nearly uniformly succumbed to one form of tyranny or another. To inject the Palestinian people with their historical burden into the Israel’s lone democratic society in the region would unquestionably jeopardize the future of democracy in Israel, along with the lives of all its citizens.

Still, if diplomats want to see a lasting peace in the region, they must give Palestinians true self-rule, including both democracy and independence from foreign powers. To appease the animosity of war and build the foundations of democracy, Israel must follow the example of the United States in Germany and Japan after World War II. Israel must revamp the Palestinian educational system to eliminate incitement and hate-filled ideological indoctrination from the curriculum while incorporating basic democratic values. At the same time, Israel must help the Palestinian people to rebuild their cities and transform their refugee camps into new cities. As Palestinians began to realize material improvements in their quality of life as a direct result of their cooperation with Israel, their confidence in the future of a diplomatic process would mount while nationalistic rivalries subsided. Moderate leaders would emerge who could lead their people in building a democracy. Only if Israel and the future Palestinian state build economic, social and diplomatic ties like the United States, Germany and Japan built following World War II, can they hope to coexist on the tiny spec of land they must share.

Jake Solomon is a graduate student in the Department of Mathematics.