The argument that wars have not broken out between democracies has proven correct thus far. The argument that it is better to make peace with democratic countries is also true: a democratic country is obligated to its agreements, each new government continues where its predecessor left off, and it makes decisions on the basis of broad support–unlike some small clique that takes power and whose commitments become irrelevant the moment a different faction takes over the country in its stead.
These arguments have led figures like Natan Sharansky and Binyamin Netanyahu to assert that democratic Israel cannot make peace with the non-democratic Arab countries, and that it must wait until these countries are democratic before it signs peace treaties with them. Alternatively, as long as these states do not change their regimes, Israel must demand wide security margins in making peace with them–so wide that these countries will apparently be prevented from making peace with us.
While in Israel this concept has not been universally accepted, the United States, and particularly the Bush administration, has proven receptive to these arguments: the cause of democratization plays a central role in the American effort to advance the peace process in the region. Any expression of reservation regarding this new approach is liable to be interpreted as a reservation about democracy and, god forbid, as support for reactionary regimes.
The truth is that those Israelis who raise the issue of democracy with our neighbors as a precondition for any peace agreement are not exactly waiting for the moment when an appropriate Palestinian partner will appear in order to deliver over the West Bank and Gaza Strip and rid ourselves of a 36-year-old occupation and the heavy demographic burden that comes with it. These are right wingers who are convinced that time is working in Israel’s favor, who understand full well that the Arab world will not become democratic in the near future, and who are prepared to wait even for several generations until the neighboring regimes change, because they are not prepared to pay the price of peace.
The real question that confronts us is not whether it is preferable to reach peace agreements with democratic neighbors, but whether it is right for Israel to wait for additional decades until this happens. Doesn’t the fact that in 2010 there will be more Palestinians than Jews west of the Jordan River mandate an agreement at an earlier stage? Can Israel maintain the burden of the occupation and the allocation of its resources for the occupied territories for many more decades? Is continuous war the situation in which we want to raise our children and grandchildren instead of living normal lives like most countries?
Anyone answering in the negative has to conclude that peace will be made with the Palestinians, the Syrians and the Lebanese when we find the right balance between the national interests of the various parties, regardless of the nature of their regimes. Perhaps wars have not broken out between democracies, but peace treaties and other agreements have been made between democratic and non-democratic countries (even between Israel and Egypt and Jordan) without anyone feeling the need to demand a regime change before adding his signature. Regional peace is likely to accelerate the processes of democratization, and it is more likely that this will happen than that Middle East regimes will soon become democratic and thereby set the scene for peace agreements with Israel.
America’s efforts to advance democracy in the region are worthy of our admiration and our assistance. We recall that similar attempts were made by the West in Egypt, Syria and other Arab countries in the 1930s and 1940s. These were far-reaching efforts, applied to a largely illiterate population, and they failed. The next attempt should be made cautiously, bearing in mind what happened in Algeria a few years ago when Islamic radical elements exploited the new regime for their own dark purposes.
Yossi Beilin was Justice Minister in the government of Ehud Barak, 1999-2001, and an architect of the Oslo peace process.