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Sunday Gazette-Mail ] Story:Robert V. Keeley

February 26, 2006
Robert V. Keeley

The danger of democracy: Sometimes the wrong guy wins

On Feb. 14, the lead story in The New York Times disclosed a reported plan being discussed by U.S. and Israeli officials to starve the Palestinian Authority of money, to compel its president, Mahmoud Abbas, to call a new parliamentary election. The hope was that by then the Palestinians would be so unhappy with life under the new Hamas-led government that they would return to office a reformed and chastened Fatah movement.

The unstated conclusion was that Fatah, the nationalist movement founded by Yasser Arafat, would resume its long record of failure to achieve an end to the Israeli occupation, the creation of a Palestinian state, or any of the other objectives of the so-called “Road Map,” which has long since become a road map to nowhere as far as the Palestinians are concerned.

In the following days the press reported some backtracking by both the Israelis and Americans, which was belied by their announced steps to starve the Palestinian Authority of funds it needs to function at all. Contrary to the predicted outcome of the alleged plan, the most likely result would be complete chaos in the Palestinian territories.

And a second election would simply boost the appeal of Hamas as the best alternative to Fatah. This plan boggles the mind for its stupidity, and calls into question the intelligence of those in charge of our Middle East policies.

Even worse are the Bush administration’s other reactions to the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections, policies bordering on the farcical. Their big project of promoting democracy throughout the Middle East region received a decided boost when the Palestinians were able to hold what no one disputed was a free and fair election for a new parliament, with no violence, an honest count, and acceptance of defeat by the losers who were the incumbents. A model democratic performance.

But we had a problem: The wrong guys won! So we have scrambled to try to undo what democracy produced, thus placing hypocrisy at the forefront of our whole posture in the region.

We and the Israelis have now insisted that Hamas must meet three conditions before we will deal with them at all: that they recognize Israel’s right to exist, forswear violence and accept all previous Palestinian agreements as still valid. Let’s take them one at a time.

Conditions of peace

Which Israel must Hamas recognize? The one that lies within the internationally recognized borders of June 1967, or one that includes the annexation of the Golan Heights, the annexation of a vastly expanded Jerusalem city, numerous Israeli settlements on West Bank Palestinian land that Israel’s leaders have announced will be included in Israel, thus pre-empting any final status peace agreement, and most probably an Israel whose eastern border will be at least the “separation barrier,” which should really be called the “apartheid wall.” Is that the Israel that Hamas must now recognize?

How about violence? A year ago Hamas joined in a cease-fire or truce and ceased its resistance military activities against Israelis in the interest of joining the Palestinian electoral competition. No doubt we would like to see the Hamas militia disbanded and disarmed, which they are unlikely to concede short of a peace agreement. We can call this a terrorist organization if we wish, as we have done with Hezbollah in Lebanon, but a recent event regarding the latter is instructive. To resolve a crisis that was impeding the functioning of his cabinet, the Lebanese prime minister decided that Hezbollah’s army was not a militia but rather “a resistance,” a peculiar semantic change that permitted the boycotting Hezbollah ministers to resume attending cabinet meetings and that defied the U.N. resolution demanding the disbandment of militias.

And how has Israel responded to the Palestinian truce? By continuing its targeted assassinations of Palestinian leaders, with air attacks that kill the target as well as anyone accompanying him, and with almost daily shootings of Palestinian youths alleged to be planting bombs. The most recent assassination was of the Islamic Jihad leader in Nablus. And the Israelis continue to arrest suspected militants throughout the territories they occupy. One must suppose that this total lack of reciprocity in the realm of violence — this state terrorism — is testing the patience of those Palestinians observing the truce.

Finally, have the Israelis been honoring all the previous agreements signed with the Palestinians? Have they met any of their obligations under the Road Map? Ceased establishing new settlements and expanding old ones? Is the apartheid wall consistent with those agreements? Can they simply refuse to hand over the customs duties and taxes they collect for the Palestinians? They have made the Palestinian economy totally dependent on Israel’s and now they are refusing to allow Palestinian workers to work at their jobs in Israel. Are they justified in preventing people from traveling between the West Bank and Gaza, including the new members of the Parliament? Who is not respecting previously signed agreements?

American hypocrisy

A seven-member team representing the Washington-based Council for the National Interest Foundation were accredited as observers of the January 25 Palestinian elections in Gaza City, and took advantage of being in the area to hold discussions with a variety of senior governmental and political party and faction leaders in six countries. They traveled from Cairo through Gaza to the West Bank and Jerusalem and on to Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. They recorded about 20 hours of interviews and are preparing a documentary film.

Many of those interviewed have never been heard before on American media in any form. They included the presidents and foreign ministers of Syria and Lebanon, three of the top leaders of Hamas, the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon, other leaders of Islamist and nationalist parties in several countries, and an array of local media people and our senior American diplomats in all but one of the countries visited.

The willingness, even eagerness, of these persons to meet with a visiting unofficial American delegation highlighted the fact that there currently exists very little in the way of dialogue between the Bush administration and the political leaders of much of the Middle East.

Boycotts of some major personalities by administration officials, such as the President of Lebanon, and an emphasis on threats and public criticism have rendered ineffective and almost irrelevant our diplomacy in that critical area. The harsh negative reaction to the surprising Hamas victory in occupied Palestine typifies this “head in the sand” attitude that appears to have taken hold in Washington. More listening and less lecturing are sorely needed in our relations with the Arab and Islamic nationalists in the Middle East. Our own depressing reaction to the absent, irrelevant, and ineffective diplomacy in that critical region caused us to send an open letter to the President deploring this situation and appealing for a change in goals, priorities, and tactics.

Somewhat surprisingly, the delegation heard very little (that is, almost no) criticism of the Bush administration’s project for promoting the spread of democracy throughout the Middle East. This attitude results from the consistent and enduring admiration for American principles and values of democratic rule by governments chosen by their people and committed to governing of, by and for the people.

Still, there was criticism of what is seen by the people of the region as a descent into hypocrisy by America, in the sense that we are seen to approve of real democracy — of movements and parties in the region demanding change and reforms — only if they agree with and support our own policies on the problems and conflicts of the region.

Most salient in this respect has been the U.S. Government’s unwillingness to accept and deal honestly and forthrightly with Islamist movements and parties that have been winning elections and significant representation in governments in the area but that have values with which we disagree, especially regarding our uncritical and unbending support for Israel.

Our government’s promotion of democracy in the Middle East must encompass, at the very least, three principles that are fundamental to our or anyone else’s devotion to democracy. These are: First and foremost, free and fair elections are essential, but anyone must be permitted to run for office in them. Second, the winners must be allowed to win and to take power. Third, neither we, nor anyone else, can be allowed to impose conditions on whether or not those winners can become the governing authority or a major participant in a coalition.

Popular demand

The recent Palestinian election that the delegation observed produced a surprising victory by Hamas, a result that was most disappointing to certain outsiders, to put it mildly. The American administration needs to examine and understand the reasons for this result, and then to accept it without equivocation or condemnation.

Beyond the explanation of corruption in the Palestinian Authority, Hamas provided social help and a religious commitment to Islam. But the basic reason for Hamas’ win was the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s and the Palestinian Authority’s, and thus Fatah’s, inability over to achieve the rights of the Palestinian people in their own long-held lands, specifically the right to self-determination.

This was combined with sympathy for Hamas’s commitment to the return to their homeland of the millions of Palestinian refugees who have been living and suffering far from Israel and the occupied territories. Hamas offered a vision that perhaps these refugees, or some of them, could one day return home. A large plurality of the electorate apparently had confidence that Hamas had a better strategy for liberating them from the oppressive occupation of the past nearly 40 years.

The senior Arab leaders who met with the council’s delegation were virtually unanimous in expressing the view that the single most vital project in the area to eliminate extremism and resort to violence would be the achievement of a fair, balanced, just and complete resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The United States, they insisted, could and must put its undoubted weight behind this effort.

Many of these Arab leaders pointed to the Arab Peace Initiative, the very generous offer made to Israel, at Saudi inspiration, at the Arab League summit held in Beirut in March 2002, which was unanimously endorsed by all 22 members of the Arab League, including the Palestinian delegation. This offer’s essential elements included full de jure acceptance and recognition of Israel by all of the Arab states, provided that Israel withdraws to the 1967 Green Line borders. It also called for the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state in the small (22 percent) portion of Palestine constituted by the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital. The issue of the potential return of the Palestinian refugees living elsewhere was to be resolved by subsequent negotiations with Israel — a signal concession by the Arab side.

This generous offer was consistent with the numerous U.N. resolutions that have addressed this problem over the past six decades, and would establish peace at the core of this troubled region. It would also be fully consistent with international law. Inexplicably, this offer received no response whatsoever from either the United States or Israel.

A good start toward repairing the damaged image of the United States in the Arab and Muslim worlds would be serious consideration of this generous offer and its reasonable formula for bringing peace to the Middle East.

The delegation understood from its meeting with Amr Mousa, secretary general of the Arab League, that he intends to relaunch this initiative at the next summit meeting of the League to be held in Khartoum this spring. We would be wise to study it carefully and make a decision whether it is the best plan available that would bring peace to Israel and to Palestine. Let us hope.

Robert V. Keeley is chairman of the Council for the National

Interest Foundation. He is a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer with a 34-year career in diplomacy, serving as ambassador to Mauritius, Zimbabwe and Greece, and as deputy assistant secretary of state for African Affairs. He was president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, and delivered Charleston’s W.E. “Ned” Chilton III Leadership Lecture in 1997.

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