Social Studies November 2005

Palestine, Not Iraq, Is The Best Shot At an Arab Democracy

The outcome of the footrace between democratization and destabilization in Palestine will figure centrally in U.S foreign policy for years to come.

Like it or not, America's foreign policy is hostage to an ambitious and difficult nation-building effort in the very heart of the Arab world. The demise of a corrupt, authoritarian, and incorrigibly violent leader has led to a power vacuum that American foreign policy must fill with a stable government that is internally democratic and externally peaceful.

Working against American interests is a loose coalition of violent nationalists, Islamic extremists, and opportunistic gangs. They have little in common but a willingness to use violence to prevent the establishment of a democracy. Even if they cannot finally take over the country, they calculate that their interests would be better served by chaos than by a strong central authority that would put them out of business.

For its part, the central government is pitiably weak. Its security forces are numerous but ill-trained and unreliable, more apt to flee or switch sides than to fight. But the government and its American friends have a plan: Use elections and the lure of politics to co-opt many militants while isolating the rest. Meanwhile, provide enough calm and prosperity to give wary moderates, who fear the extremists but mistrust the authorities, a stake in the fledgling government's success.

So there it is: a footrace between democratization and destabilization. As of now, it's touch and go. What is clear is that the outcome will figure centrally in U.S. foreign policy and in the politics of the Arab world, if not the whole world, for years to come.

I speak, of course, of Palestine.

A year ago, Yasir Arafat died. His passing brought new hope for progress toward peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It also brought a subtle but important change in America's realistic aims in the region. With Arafat gone, the emergence of an accountable Palestinian government became possible. What had been primarily a peacemaking effort became primarily a nation-building effort. Like Iraq—only, perhaps, more hopeful.

Hopeful? In the Middle East? Surely in that region, hope is the province of fools. In a September poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Palestinians expressed optimism that Israel's recent pullout from Gaza would lead to improved economic conditions for Gazans and better prospects for peace, but almost two-thirds said that a political settlement between the two sides will be possible "never" or "only in many generations to come." No rose-tinted glasses there.

As for Israelis, they are digging in behind a security barrier and drawing what amount to de facto boundaries, the better to hunker down and decouple their fate from what they see as intractable chaos among the Palestinians. "I remain convinced that there is no real chance, for the near future, to have central authority established among the Palestinians," says Yossi Shain, the dean of the school of government at Tel Aviv University (and a professor of government at Georgetown University). "This means, as [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon himself said [in late October], that unilateralism will be the name of the game."

The Palestinian Authority remains rife with the corruption and incompetence that Arafat nurtured, but the PA's rival is Hamas, a violent Islamist group that seeks to destroy Israel and smother Palestinian secularism. In October, during a Rose Garden press appearance with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, President Bush acknowledged that his goal of a democratic Palestine might not be realized during his presidency. "I can't tell you when it's going to happen," he said.

Yet Bush was not wrong when he remarked on "how much things have changed in the Holy Land." First, in January, Palestinians elected a president—Abbas—who believes that the violent Palestinian uprising that began in 2000 was a mistake. "Abbas is the un-Arafat," says David Makovsky, the director of the Middle East project at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Arafat focused on being a revolutionary leader, and Abbas has made reconstruction a centerpiece of his tenure." Arafat exploited the conflict; Abbas wants to resolve it. "The time has come to put an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict," he said at the Rose Garden session last month.

Another milestone came in August and September, when Israel unilaterally removed its settlements from Gaza. To accomplish this, Sharon—architect of the settlement movement—used military force against his own people in a traumatic confrontation that gambled his government. He won. Sharon is now politically stronger than ever, and not only are the Gaza settlements gone, but so is the implicit veto that the settler movement formerly wielded over any land-for-peace swap.

Presented by

Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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