Abu Mazen is right: Freedom, too, is needed

There was a striking exchange of contrasting views that took place during the Rose Garden event with President George W. Bush and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. It was striking, in that although the exchange went to the core of the issue that separates US policy from Palestinian reality, it received virtually no treatment in US press coverage of the event.

In his remarks, President Bush waxed poetic about his near mystical notion that democracy liberates the human spirit, creates peace and prosperity and ends violence. Abu Mazen countered that democracy is but one side of a coin, the other side being freedom. Abu Mazen noted that while Palestinians were moving on the democracy and reform fronts, they are still not free. Without freedom, democracy is not sustainable and can collapse in a disaster of renewed violence.

In this exchange, it is the Palestinian president who got it right. The assumption that the absence of democracy is the root cause of violence and that, therefore, its presence is a cure, is, at best, flawed and not empirically based.

In reality, violence, in the Palestinian context, is the product of an 80-year history in which Palestinians have lost control of their lands, their rights, and their ability to define their own history. The counter view, borrowed from the likes of Netanyahu and Sharansky, is a mystical concoction brewed by those who denied Palestinians rights, to absolve themselves from the burden of responsibility, shifting the blame instead onto the shoulders of their victims.

The situation in the occupied Palestinian lands, today, can only be described as horrific. Poverty is widespread, and unemployment is endemic, with some estimates placing youth unemployment in Gaza at 80%. Add to this the daily treatment meted out by the occupier: the harassment and humiliation at checkpoints, the sense of powerlessness as Palestinians see their land confiscated, closed off and built upon, and the feeling of being cut off from not only the rest of the world, but even the next town or village. It is this loss of control, and not the absence of democracy, that has spawned the violence.

Imagine what it means for a young man in Gaza with no job, no prospect of a job, and, therefore, no opportunity to lead a normal life-to marry, to create a family and to provide for them and bring honor to them. It is in this context that so many have become ripe recruits for the heretical and destructive cult of death that has taken hold in the region.

Psychiatrists and cultural anthropologists have understood that the act of suicide bombing is a perverse response to this powerlessness and humiliation. The bomber, who feels already dead, in terms of lacking the ability to take control and change the conditions of his life, strikes out in a misguided attempt to express power.

Those who posit democratic reform of the Palestinian Authority as a way to reverse this destructive dynamic are as wrong-headed and simplistic as those who propose that a more heavy-handed crackdown will stop the violence.

Palestinians deserve reform and democracy and those, who in their quest for political power are exploiting the despair, must be stopped. But for the reform process to be sustained and for the purveyors of violence to be isolated and stopped, it is freedom and opportunity that must be expanded, through a radical transformation of conditions on the ground.

Palestinians need to feel hope that their lives can change; that their society has the power to take control by expanding economic possibilities, regaining access to their land and defining their own history. It is this sense of empowerment that will end the humiliation and despair.

Abu Mazen is right and he should be supported. If President Bush’s vision of two democratic states living side-by-side is to be realized, it will take more than offers of limited economic assistance to the Palestinians and timid reminders to the Israelis of their "Road Map" obligations. If the US were to become a partner in the Palestinian quest for empowerment and freedom, as it is a partner in the Israeli quest for security and recognition, it could help to transform Israeli behavior, inspire Palestinian hope and bring about the change needed to foster democracy and contribute to an end to violence. At the same time, and, as a byproduct, such a visionary expansion of US policy would contribute to transforming the image of America throughout the broader Middle East.