Measuring democracy’s impact

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In theory, democracy and democratization should be good news for the cause of peace. The logic behind that argument is simply that democratization offers added opportunity for the public to express its views and interests and for decision-making bodies to take public sentiment into consideration. Since the public has a vested interest in peace, then expanding public access to decision-making circles (which is what democracy is about) should also strengthen peaceful tendencies in individual politicians and the government as a whole.

Indeed, the Palestinian experience offers examples supporting that argument. The 1996 elections, the most prominent democratic exercise in recent Palestinian history, enhanced and strengthened the peace camp in Palestine and allowed for stable Palestinian engagement in the peace process that followed.

Another example is, of course, the recent political reform process that has spurred steps towards Palestinian decentralization and the delegation of powers. The elected Palestinian Legislative Council drafted and then voted for constitutional amendments that created a prime ministerial post, thereby contributing to a Palestinian political structure that is more varied, representational and conducive to peace.

But before one gets too comfortable with the thesis that democracy brings about peace, it must be pointed out that Israel’s recent history discredits that argument entirely. It was free and democratic elections in Israel that brought to power individuals and political parties that previously formed the central opposition to the peace process. It was the exercise of democracy that created this current Israeli government, one that holds dear political positions and ideologies that are completely incompatible with the fundamental notions of Palestinian-Israeli harmony, namely the requirements of international legitimacy and the principle of exchanging land for peace. Certainly Israel is not alone in this case; there are other historical examples of instances when the public voted into office leaders that later proved to be neither democratic nor peaceful.

It is possible then to conclude that even as democracy and democratization may help peace along, they are not enough to guarantee and promote peaceful tendencies. Indeed, there is the need to encourage and recruit other auxiliary factors. In other words, the peace camps in both Israel and Palestine need to be more efficient and adamant in using democratic opportunities to promote their cause, rather than allowing the enemies of peace to manipulate the democratic competition for power.

Further, those external powers that wield influence over the publics in our region should invest themselves in the cause of reconciliation. In this regard, it is useful to remember that the Israeli public, for one, is very sensitive to signs of approval or displeasure from the United States government and its people in evaluating the political performance of Israeli leadership. That factor contributed to the downfall of both prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr. Ghassan Khatib is a Palestinian political analyst and director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.

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