Democracy begins at home

When Menachem Begin led Israel to peace with Egypt in the late seventies, he offered no preconditions regarding the democratization of that country. The same was true for Yitzhak Rabin when he made peace with Jordan in 1994. Indeed, Rabin went even further in his developing relationship with Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat in the years 1993-95: he stated publicly that Arafat should have an easier time than Israel in dealing with Palestinian Islamist terrorists because he would not be burdened by Israeli institutions like the High Court of Justice and human rights groups. Rabin and his successors thus chose to ignore the corruption and dictatorial features that came to characterize the Palestinian Authority.

With a few years hindsight, it appears that Begin and Rabin were right in not trying to interfere in the domestic structures of our state neighbors in the course of their peace efforts with Egypt and Jordan. Our agreements with those countries are stable, and while the peace is “cold”, it has withstood regime change as well as the trials of nearly three years of violent struggle with our Palestinian neighbors. On the other hand, there is now a broad consensus in Israel that had Rabin, having successfully negotiated with the Palestinians the creation of a democratic infrastructure in the PA, insisted that Arafat adopt additional safeguards of a democratic society with regard to corruption and incitement, the situation might not have degenerated to the current impasse.

Conceivably these radically contrasting dynamics of peace reflect the different realities of Israel’s relations with its state neighbors vis-é-vis the far more complex nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Alternatively, the problem may rest with the specific personality of Yasir Arafat (as opposed to Anwar Sadat and King Hussein), insofar as he appears to be incapable of ceasing to support violence and incitement. Meanwhile a new element has been introduced to the equation: the American determination, in the post 9/11 era, that global Islamic radical terrorism is linked to the absence of democracy in Arab and other Islamic countries, including Palestine.

The upshot of these developments has been the emergence, under pressure from the US and Israel, of a Palestinian reform program that is designed to inculcate additional principles of democracy in Palestine such as financial transparency and the monopolization of the tools of power in the hands of the elected regime. So far it has registered limited success.

But suppose, for the sake of argument, that Palestine was ruled by a dictatorial regime, a police state, that succeeded completely in preventing acts of terrorism against Israelis, and whose leader made extraordinary gestures of reconciliation toward us similar to those we encountered on the part of Sadat and King Hussein. Wouldn’t Israelis be far more inclined to make peace with that leader than they are today, regardless of the absence of democracy? Would the US make any more of a fuss over that regime’s undemocratic institutions than it makes with certain of our neighbors who live at peace with us despite the absence of a well developed democratic infrastructure?

The United States is currently committed to a radical design of democratizing the Middle East through a kind of cascade effect to be generated to a large extent by the democratization of post-Saddam Iraq. It is far too early to judge the efficacy of this effort. Nor–even assuming the absolute truth of the maxim that democracies do not make war on one another–is it clear that Arab democracies will necessarily be more inclined to make peace with us.

Meanwhile we had best worry about our own democracy. A survey just released by the Israel Democracy Institute indicates that at the formal, institutional level Israeli democracy is in good shape, but that at the popular level support for democracy in Israel is suffering. Israelis, for example, put more stock in strong leaders than in “debates or legislation,” and seek in ever greater numbers to restrict the rights of Arab citizens. The survey also shows that democratic institutions we have taken pride in, like human rights and freedom of the press, have suffered setbacks. Most of these negative phenomena can be traced directly to the sense of siege from terrorism that preoccupies most of us, and reflect the heavy daily consequences of the ongoing conflict for Israeli society.

But there is one longer term ramification of the Israeli-Palestinian encounter that the survey ignored. Quite understandably, it looked at how Israeli democracy works for Israelis. The broader question is how long Israel can continue to be a democracy if we remain in an open-ended occupation of another people that will soon outnumber us, and if we continue to narrow the options for a two state solution by forcibly integrating the Jewish and Arab populations between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea through virtually unrestricted settlement.

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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