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.
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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.

This month, Makovsky notes, Israel took another risk by agreeing to yield control over Gaza's outer perimeter. Under U.S. pressure, Israel agreed to let the European Union control a key security checkpoint between Gaza and Egypt. "It sounds technical to people," Makovsky says, "but it's a far-reaching move." Palestinians will now have the opportunity to show whether, with foreign help, they can secure their border against an influx of arms and contraband.

Meanwhile, Martin S. Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who is now the director of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, notes two helpful changes in public opinion. Israelis have decided that they need to "get out of the Palestinians' lives." Polls, he says, show that "a strong majority of Israelis have left the West Bank already, in their minds." At the same time, Palestinians have decided that they are exhausted by violence, even if it works. They want calm and a restoration of normal life. It was largely this shift in the Palestinian mood that led Hamas to curtail its attacks on Israel.

Hamas and other militant groups, however, are no friends of Abbas, and Abbas lacks either the means (as he claims) or the will (as Israel insists) to disarm the militants. The highest obstacle remains in place: confronting the militants and bringing them under the rule of law. Doing so might spark a Palestinian civil war. Or it might produce Somalia-style chaos.

And so Abbas has put his chips on Palestinian parliamentary elections set for January 25, in which his Fatah faction and Hamas will field candidates. If support for Hamas comes in relatively low—below, say, 30 percent, Makovsky says—Abbas will win the expectations game. The election will give new legitimacy to his demand for "one authority, one law, and one gun," and the new parliament will pass laws disarming the militants, many of whom will respond by deciding to pursue their aims politically instead of violently.

That, anyway, is the plan. It's plausible, but it's a long shot. Hamas might do well enough in the election to stalemate Abbas, or it might undercut him by launching a new war on Israel. On the other hand, this shot is perhaps not as long as the one America is taking in Iraq.

The dominant political forces in Iraq are centrifugal, as the country fissions along Shiite-Sunni-Kurdish and secular-Islamist lines, whereas Palestinian sentiment seems to be coalescing into something like a common national identity—a polity. Iraq is bedeviled by foreign jihadis who are immune to politics, whereas Palestine's militants are homegrown and usually responsive to popular opinion. In the outside world, nation building in Iraq is widely seen as an American project; by contrast, Europe and Russia, moderate Arab states (especially Egypt), and the United Nations are all engaged in Palestine and genuinely want success there.

Above all, there is this: If a successful democracy emerges in Palestine, it will not be at the point of an American gun. In the very shadow of Jerusalem, an Arab people will have found their own path to democracy, and the government's legitimacy will be unassailable. The echo throughout the Arab and Muslim world might be thunderous. Indyk argues that it is Palestine, not Iraq, where investment in democracy-building is most likely to pay off. The road to Baghdad may lead through Ramallah.

How much outsiders can do is unclear. It would certainly help if Western and, especially, Arab countries made good on their pledges to support Abbas with generous economic aid. And Abbas, a man who seems to lack the confidence to command, needs foreign prodding to consolidate and professionalize his security forces, a nettle he has yet to grasp, much to Israel's frustration.

Still, the ball is now in the court of Abbas and the Palestinian people. "It's up to the Palestinians to get their act together," says Indyk. January's Palestinian elections bear close watching. The December 15 vote for an Iraqi parliament will be only the second-most-important Arab election this season.

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

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