George W. Bush is trapped. On the one hand, he would love nothing more than to comply with Ariel Sharon’s wishes, which seem to be his commands, to give the Palestinian Authority a facelift and invest a more pliant chairman. On the other hand, as his administration had to admit, the United States does not choose the Palestinian leader and thus cannot simply deliver on Sharon’s requirements, at least overtly, especially when dealing with a leader who was democratically elected in front of the very eyes of a former American president.
This is naturally not a problem Bush faces with the Iraqi leader, whose demise is being openly debated by American hawks and doves alike. The toppling of a dictator whose usefulness has expired is apparently much easier to consider than that of a leader who was elected fair and square.
Choosing a leader democratically is a notion by which America lives, with the possible exception of the last presidential elections. Be that as it may, Americans usually respect the concept of selecting the person who will rule the people and make decisions in their name. Americans also understand full well the concept of “no taxation without representation,” one of the leitmotifs of their war of independence.
But more than two centuries later, the aspirations of the founding fathers are clashing head on with the intricacies of global politics. Today’s feared superpower is actually the once idealistic land of the free and home of the brave. All of King George’s power, backed by the might of the British Empire at its peak, would be no match for today’s self-appointed Emperor George and the hyper-power behind him.
No one, least of all Yasser Arafat, is willing to stand up to this ultimate sovereign or to dispute America’s right to intervene in the internal political process of supposedly free people. In Palestine’s case, of course, the people are far from free and Arafat is surely the least of their problems. But perhaps the American people may be willing to contemplate just how ludicrous their government’s actions have been abroad, and how profoundly they continue to affect lives. They may want to consider that judging by the dizzying speed in which events have been developing in the Occupied Territories, it is fairly safe to suggest that President Bush has not really thought this through very well. As he stated in St. Petersburg, “I get all kinds of advice,” which does not sound very reassuring.
The American administration is suddenly anxious for Palestine to get a proper constitution, and Arafat has obliged by signing the document that was passed by his Legislative Council in 1997. The Palestinian people now have a makeshift constitution precursor before having a state, a capital, or even rough borders. This is in contrast to Israel, which does have a state and a capital, but as yet no definite borders, the latter expanding at the whim of the Israeli prime minister du jour. Interestingly, Israel also does not have a formal constitution, but rather a number of basic laws which again may be developed at the whim of different governments. Yet the American administration does not seem rushed to intervene in Israel’s internal politics, nor to ask it to decide once and for all about its definite borders. But taking the map on the Israeli candidate’s dress for the Miss Universe pageant as a confirmation of the minimum acceptable, where would the Palestinian state be?
Still, let us accept that the democratic process begins with a constitution, leaving aside the minor detail of an actual state; then, we accept that national institutions must be functional to the letter of the law. How would then America, for the benefit of its protégé, force the Palestinian judiciary to stage mock trials at the speed of light and detain the condemned in Jericho prisons?
It is difficult to see how making Palestine more “democratic” is in the interest of America, and therefore difficult not to be apprehensive of what it really has in store. The Palestinian Authority has been elected in the most democratic process of the Arab world (ironically, some even consider Arafat to be more legitimate than Bush), and the tiny areas where Palestinians are not completely under Israeli rule have political freedoms of which most of their Arab brethren only dream. Polls which would send interviewers and respondents to jail in most Arab countries are common in Palestinian areas, which is how we know of Arafat’s dwindling approval rates.
So how much democracy is Bush really planning to grant Palestinians? Will they be allowed to vote freely for the leader of their choice? Will the US respect this choice if it turns out to be, for example, the leader of an Islamic resistance movement? What of national referendums to determine how many compromises the people are willing to make to gain their state? Will the rejection of proposals a la Barak-Clinton be respected as one of national consensus? Realistically, there are limits to the democracy that would be tolerated for Palestinians, and they will only be as “democratic” as it suits Israel. The democracy supposedly desired for the Palestinians is clearly restricted to the ejection of Arafat.
If this pretense is acceptable to the people who consider themselves leaders of the free world, then the notion of interference in other people’s destiny is acceptable, which brings up an alternative argument on intervention in other nations’ internal political processes: If anyone should be interfering in the selection of a country’s leader, then perhaps the whole world, including Arabs, should be electing the president of the United States.
Arabs are directly influenced in every aspect of their life by the American leader, and they are paying directly and indirectly for America’s subvention of Israel (making them subject to taxation without representation). Many nations would be queuing to demand that voting privilege, as American presidents’ decisions affect practically every citizen of the world, but Bush’s current focus on Arafat calls for reciprocation. In fact, by voting in American elections, many Arabs would ultimately be taking a shortcut to voting for their own leaders, which seem to survive or subside by the grace of US presidents.
As the current American administration roams earth and sky to rearrange the world as it sees fit, in open defiance of everyone, it has forgotten that superpowers have responsibilities, and that one’s freedom ends where others’ starts. While the Romans built the world, the Americans have chucked the Kyoto Protocol and are now talking of surrounding the planet with nuclear missiles: does this not concern everyone? Obligations to uphold the most basic of human rights have been traded for strategic interests and financial gain, and from star wars to “terror” wars it is mostly the innocents who pay the price.
If America is justified in imposing its choice of leaders for other peoples, then the latter have all the more reason to elect or reject its leader. True democracy sometimes gets in the way of the prerogatives of superpowers, and Bush’s plot for Palestine is but an example. Before committing themselves to Israel’s diktat, Americans should question its morality and for once concede to Palestinians some of the privileges they assume for themselves.
Rime Allaf is a writer and specialist in Middle East affairs. She is also a consultant in international communications and new economy business.