Palestine, Democracy, and Peace: A Global Investment
Despite the predictable degree of uncertainty and apprehension that accompanies any transition, the post-Arafat era is exhibiting positive indicators in both spheres of nation-building and peacemaking.
The historical larger-than-life person and symbol of Yasser Arafat had served as a focal point for internal cohesion and as a historical reference for continuity and authenticity of identity. Thus he had served simultaneously as a gravitational force for centralized decision-making as well as for allocation of blame and rationalization for inaction or failure by others.
Arafat’s tangible absence has robbed both friend and foe alike of the convenient scapegoat that bore the brunt of their inadequacies and transgressions.
Israel’s prime minister Ariel Sharon can no longer exploit the claim of a lack of a “Palestinian partner” despite the fact that he had imprisoned that “absent” partner in the rubble of the Muqata’a. His unilateralism and militarism, including the Gaza “unilateral disengagement” plan, will lose their logic of exclusivity and power politics.
George W. Bush, in his second term presidency, can no longer avoid engaging in the politics of peacemaking in the region, particularly following his foray into military adventurism with its disastrous consequences. The absence of a viable peace process and of a credible US role have fueled the flames of violence, extremism, and fundamentalism, while giving the Israeli occupation space to create destructive facts on the ground (including illegal settlement activities and the horrific wall of separation and annexation), and license to destroy the most basic requisites of peace (including the validation of the integrity and rights of the other).
Internally, the Palestinian leadership—primarily comprised of traditional older-generation PLO returnees—has been deprived as well of its convenient excuse for inaction or failure, as well as of its historical safety valve and reference point. While Fateh moved quickly to unite ranks and consolidate its hold on power, it held on to the symbols of the past all of whom belong to the old school despite their title of “new leadership.” The younger generation and the leadership that emerged under occupation rather than in exile, although overtly excluded, are maneuvering to maximize their gains within the movement’s structure and hierarchy in return for giving their support (thus their constituency and legitimacy) to the aging leadership.
Clearly, both the national political system and the Fateh organizational rationale are undergoing substantive transformation during the current period of transition. The democratization of Fateh and the future ascendance of the younger leadership is one outcome of this period, should change take a positive direction. If the old guard, however, stick to their guns as the alliance of the weak and continue to hold on exclusively to power and privilege, they will be signaling the demise of Fateh as well as the end of their individual careers.
At the national level, the key words for the public include good governance, security and stability, and a just peace. To achieve those, a simultaneous and comprehensive program of administrative, financial, and personal reform and accountability must be launched immediately and institutionalized in a public and transparent manner. A full separation and upgrading of powers must take place to ensure the rule of law and professionalism in all public institutions be they executive, judicial, or legislative. Political patronage, cronyism, abuse of position and misuse of public funds, and other forms of betrayal of the public trust must be publicly and actively combated to regain the confidence of the Palestinian people. The space and license that were granted to President Arafat to manipulate the system are no longer available to any of his successors who will be subject to intense scrutiny and serious accountability. Thus they will feel his absence as a patron and protector—a source of their own legitimacy and power—as well as the cover for their failure or the excuse for their inaction.
Neither prime minister nor president of the Palestinian Authority can afford to perpetuate a centralized and personalized system of favors, self interest, and control. They, and the PLO leadership to a lesser degree, will be required to build efficient institutions, to act within the law, and to accept oversight and accountability. Regardless of the margin of victory in elections, all public officials will have to refer to their electorate for their mandate and legitimacy. Furthermore, the Speaker of the Legislative Council can no longer subvert the institution as part of a struggle for political advantage nor undertake executive tasks (including negotiations) that clearly indicate a conflict of interest. All will be required to deliver quickly and decisively, and the first test will be the reform of the security forces (merging and institutionalizing on the basis of the law) in order to deliver public order and security and the upgrading and reform of the judiciary to be able to deliver justice and equality before the law. In addition, the political map of Palestine will undergo changes as the different factions begin to reassess their power as well as their political programs. The Islamic opposition, Hamas and Jihad Islami, will no longer be able to avoid the imperatives of democracy, and will thus have to engage in the process of elections to gauge their power, to obtain their mandate, and to accept accountability. Their traditional demand of the “piece of the pie” in the form of a “unified national leadership” outside the PA and the PLO structures will be invalidated, as will their claim that they are carrying out the “wishes of the Palestinian people” in pursuing a course of armed struggle and violence as the only means of resistance.
The left-wing factions, within and outside the Authority, will also have to face up to their failure to gain a constituency or to develop a discourse that merges nation-building with peacemaking. The transformation of factional politics into party systems will be the first and essential requisite in the establishment of a pluralistic, multi-party inclusive democracy. The Palestinian public is fed up with rhetorical slogans, frozen clichés, and empty pronouncements that are incapable of providing a handle on reality or delivering services and ensuring social justice. The emergence of the “third way” option will have to be in the form of a bold, secular, and forward-looking democratic coalition to break the simplistic polarization of an inept, corrupt national power faced with an Islamic ideological opposition. Such an alternative will have to address the requirements of establishing a democratic system of governance with integrity and efficiency, while articulating a strategy and program for peace that can attract the three essential players: a Palestinian constituency, the Israeli public, and the international community. The rhetoric of “all-or-nothing,” the threat of violence, and “double-speak” in the dichotomy of secret deals and misleading public promises have no place in a new movement-cum-party that must respect the intelligence and moral fiber of its own people—and those of the rest of the world for that matter. Its engagement in internal and global realities must emanate from its own conviction of the justice and integrity of the Palestinian cause on the one hand, and the need to restore its position at the heart of international legality and peacemaking on the other, with self confidence, mutual respect, and authentic commitment.
As it stands now, the current figures in the Palestinian leadership are required to constitute a real transition, or to form a bridge between past patterns of authority and future systems of governance. The fact that they rapidly held on to power, and were even encouraged to do so, has been for the explicit purpose of maintaining stability and ensuring a smooth transition towards the empowerment of a genuinely “new” leadership. Ironically, their mission is to actually render themselves obsolete and to relinquish power at the earliest opportunity to be replaced by institutional meritocracy, pluralistic democracy, and systemic rule of law.
Beyond the domestic, however, the actions and policies of the Israeli occupation are decisive factors in determining the success or failure of this transition. The mentality of the occupier, with its racist and condescending attempts at placing the Palestinians on probation and demanding impossible preconditions for even entertaining the idea of reengaging in negotiations will generate greater distrust and subvert any Palestinian peace effort. Continuing the policy of brutality and escalation, including siege and fragmentation, settlement expansion, building the separation wall, assassinations and abductions, military incursions and assaults, home demolitions and destruction of crops, and all other forms of gratuitous cruelty and deliberate humiliation will destroy the chances of peace along with the Palestinian peace partner.
Now is the time for Israel to reconsider its whole failed and dangerous policies that have fueled the flames of fear, hatred, violence and extremism. Lifting the siege and allowing the Palestinians throughout the occupied territories (including East Jerusalem) to carry out their elections freely and without any threat or negative intervention is a positive first step. Releasing political prisoners, particularly elected representatives including Marwan Barghouthi and Husam Khader, and PLO leaders such as Abdel-Rahim Mallouh, will send positive signals of good will to the Palestinian people while contributing to stability and quiet as well as to the credibility of the peace option and players.
Furthermore, Israel will have to commit to engaging in serious and substantive negotiations on all aspects, including permanent status issues, without any further prolongation or preconditions. It will have to cooperate with the Quartet, or any other multinational or international body, in implementing the Road Map and achieving the end of the occupation and the two state solution as soon as possible.
The “political capital” that President George W. Bush has gained in his second term election must be “invested” in a viable and rapid peace process that can lay claim to legality, justice, and permanence. Having committed to the Road Map and to the two-state solution, the US cannot afford to keep altering its policies to accommodate Israeli demands and priorities, including the fourteen reservations on the Road Map or the illegal paybacks demanded in return for Sharon’s “unilateral disengagement” from Gaza.
Cooperation with its Quartet partners, particularly the European Union and the UN, will certainly contribute to bridging the transatlantic divide and restoring some of the US’s global and regional standing in the aftermath of its catastrophic war on Iraq. If the US decides to play the role of the even-handed peacemaker and to curb Israeli violations and excesses, it will have begun the real process of combating extremism and terrorism by addressing the grievances on which they thrive. Contrary to the neocon agenda, the path to democracy and development is through the just solution of the Palestinian question and a lasting Middle East peace rather than through war and the circumvention of long standing regional grievances. The hearts and minds of the Arab and Muslim publics can be won, not by glib public relations exercises, but by a serious reassessment of US policy toward the Palestinian question and the continuing cruelty and injustice of the Israeli occupation. A paradigm shift in the region requires a transformation of American policy and priorities with a political scope beyond the selective limitations of such projects as “The Broader Middle East Initiative.”
In concrete terms, the following steps may constitute positive intervention to generate a real momentum for peace:
Should a “window of opportunity” exist in this period of flux, then it has to be exploited rapidly by all concerned parties before it is hijacked once again by the lethal dynamic of the escalating oppression of the occupation, the violence of revenge and retribution, or the ascendancy of extremism and absolutism. The solution has already gained a global consensus; all it needs is a combination of political will, intellectual foresight, and moral courage.This article originally appeared in the November 2004 issue of Global Agenda, the magazine of the World Economic Forum annual meeting.