Democracy on Bayonets – No Thanks!


In the year since Israel’s “Operation Defensive Shield”, we have seen major changes in the map of the Middle East. Israel re-occupied the Territories and isolated Yasser Arafat. It held new elections, won by the right wing. The post of a Palestinian Prime Minister came into being. The regime of Saddam Hussein fell, and the US has begun to administer a colonial occupation in Iraq. All these events bear upon the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Among the Americans, Israelis and the Europeans as well, there is now a consensus that the anarchy here must stop.

The Israeli establishment waited eagerly for this war. It believed that progress in the local conflict meant going as far as Baghdad. Now that the Iraqi capital has fallen, Israel’s top brass speaks in terms of a dramatic turn: “There is now the potential for deciding the outcome of the violent struggle in the Territories.” (Military commentator Alex Fishman in Yediot Aharonot, April 18.)

Behind the belief in this “potential” lies a series of further beliefs, which we may paraphrase as follows: ‘The Middle East has been suffering from stagnation of leadership. At Camp David, when Arafat decided to withdraw from the Oslo Agreement, the Arab world and the US itself lacked the means to impose the Israeli conditions upon the Palestinian people. For this reason, Israel had no choice but to re-conquer the Territories, carrying out total war against the terrorist infrastructure. Now, however, the Palestinian people has paid an unbearable price, many of its activists have been killed or imprisoned, and the US has conquered Baghdad. America has created a new reality. It can re-mould the Palestinians’ consciousness, forcing them to accept even less than the deal they refused at Camp David in July 2000.’

So goes the establishment view. Among those sharing it is Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. This may surprise some people, including many Palestinians I have talked to, who believe that Sharon still aims to eternalize the Occupation. He did seem to want that in the 1980’s. As long as the Soviet Union existed, it backed a real two-state solution, including a real Palestinian state. Israel wasn’t (and isn’t) interested in a real Palestinian state. It plodded on with direct Occupation. Sharon, for his part, identified with the hard-core settlers. After the Soviets disappeared, however, and after the Gulf War ended, the Arab side was weak. Both Labor and the Likud saw a grand opportunity to end the conflict, gaining as neighbor a submissive pseudo-state. Since the early 90’s, therefore, the Israeli establishment, including Sharon, has had no further interest in direct Occupation. Such a burden delays the country’s development. Apart from its direct cost, it closes off global economic options. The hawk has not become a dove, but has merely changed its pattern of flight.

The search for a different leadership

We may compare the change in the Territories during this past year to a multiple heart bypass. All the pipes have now been connected, and the question remains, will the patient live?

In the last decade, despite his mode of governing, Saddam Hussein was the sole Arab leader who succeeded in gaining the hearts of the Arab street. The only reason for this was his stand against the American administration. The White House decided he must go. Saddam did not fit its profile for an acceptable leader. A similar fate awaited Arafat. He had refused to sign on at Camp David in July 2000. He had proved unwilling or unable to surmount the groundswell of opposition that emerged among the Palestinian people in the waning days of Oslo. In short, he failed to fit the profile. Both Bush and Sharon adopted the belief that Arafat had ceased to fulfill his function. Their view was shared by the Quartet, which included, apart from the US, the UN, the European Union and Russia. There was however an easement in Arafat’s case: the Quartet and Israel agreed it would suffice to reduce him to an empty symbol; he need not physically disappear. Israel attempted indeed to remove him, in a blundering operation known as “A Question of Time,” but it quickly saw that its use of force only gained him points and that the people would accept no substitute without his approval.

Meanwhile, a new concept appeared on the horizon: the “Road Map”, a plan adopted by the US, the UN, the European Union and Russia, self-styled “the Quartet”, for achieving a two-state solution. (See box.) It was put on hold until after the Israeli elections and the war against Iraq. Then the Quartet nations and the Arab world joined in the verbal siege on Arafat. Finding no support in any of his accustomed quarters, Arafat saw he would have to yield. He appointed as Prime Minister the very man whom Israel had earlier tried to impose by putsch: Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas).

Now the moment of truth has come. In the view of Israel, it is time to test the “potential”. It uses a single criterion: Will the new PA leadership end the armed assaults and the suicide attacks?

Abu Mazen and the Road Map

The US has managed to create a symbiotic connection between the Road Map and Abu Mazen. It announced that the Map would be published only after the formation of his government. That is to say, if the Palestinian people were to choose a different PM, the US would keep the Map under wraps (“A Question of Time”é).

What matters, it believes, is less the content of the Map than who is driving.

The American dictate revealed the tensions within the Palestinian leadership. When Abu Mazen (the Quartet’s candidate) stood before the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) for election, Arafat tried to nominate others. He failed. He did manage, however, to get the right to veto the other ministerial candidates, and he retained certain powers in security matters. Many viewed these concessions as conciliatory gestures toward an aging leader, whose only remaining power was symbolic. The “symbol” did not view matters thus. His survival in the government, in his own view at least, was by no means a merely virtual reality. He torpedoed the appointment of Muhammad Dahlan as Interior Minister, responsible for security in the West Bank and Gaza. He turned the issue into an arm-wrestling match between himself and Abu Mazen. The latter needed Dahlan. He knew that no one else has a chance of ending Palestinian violence. “Dahlan is the man who will have to unite the various security organizations under a single roof, cutting Arafat off from direct control over them. It was Dahlan who quashed the suicide attacks by Hamas in 1996, and he has warned this organization that he is prepared to do it again. He conveys the messages that he is ‘looking for’ a confrontation, in order to teach Hamas and Jihad a lesson once and for all. Dahlan claims that he can do this: that he has the resources and the personnel.” (Fishman, Ha’aretz April 18.)

The Road Map

The Road Map, released on April 30, is a plan adopted by the US, the UN, the European Union and Russia (together styled “the Quartet”) for ending the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians by the year 2005. The force of the Map depends on the pressure that the Quartet can bring to bear on each of the parties. That is, the Quartet will monitor each phase, will decide when a measure has been fulfilled or violated and will exert further pressure accordingly. The initial success of the plan depends, then, not on any inherent willingness of the parties, and not on their mutual trust, but rather on their desire to remain in the good graces of the Quartet members. The Map’s chief weakness lies in the assumption that the four will push together, although each has its own distinct relations with Israel and the Palestinians.

The Road Map has several phases. We list them with a few of the main provisions. For the full text, see

The first phase is divided into two stages:

(1) (a) The Palestinians reform their institutions, empowering a Prime Minister and installing a new cabinet, in preparation for elections. Their new government reiterates Israel’s right to exist in security. It calls for an end to the Intifada, to all acts of violence and to all incitement against Israel. It restructures the security forces, concentrating them under an empowered Interior Minister. It resumes security cooperation with Israel.

(b) Israel declares its commitment to the establishment of an “independent, viable, sovereign” Palestinian state in the Territories. It calls for an immediate end to violence against Palestinians, an end to destruction of Palestinian property, and an end to incitement against Palestinians. It lifts curfews and eases movement between Palestinian localities.

(2) (a) The Quartet establishes its formal monitoring mechanism.

(b) As Palestinian violence ceases, the IDF withdraws from the areas it has occupied since September 28, 2000 (the start of the Intifada).

(c) Israel freezes all settlement activity, including activity to accommodate natural growth.

(d) Palestinians prepare a constitution and hold elections.

Phase Two starts after Palestinian elections and ends with the establishment of a Palestinian state with provisional borders. The Quartet convenes an international conference, including Syria and Lebanon, aiming toward a comprehensive peace in the region.

In Phase Three, Israel and Palestine negotiate on borders, Jerusalem, refugees and settlements, reaching a final agreement. This puts an end to the conflict. Israel makes peace with Syria and Lebanon, and the Arab states normalize their relations with it.

The wrestling match has come to an uneasy pause: Abu Mazen is not only PM, but also the official Interior Minister. Dahlan sits beside him as mere “Minister” é though Interior Minister in fact. The spotlight is on Dahlan. If he succeeds in stopping the Intifada, he is likely to overshadow Abu Mazen.

Do Arafat and Abu Mazen, then, represent two different positions? Does Arafat take a more “national” line, and is Abu Mazen merely an American-Israeli puppet?

Hani Issawi, a Palestinian leftist and activisit, responds:

“Arafat and Abu Mazen come from exactly the same position. Everything Abu Mazen did at Oslo was under the direction of Arafat, and everything that has happened since then to the Palestinian people has happened because of Oslo. The current strife between them is not about political differences, but rather about their powers. Arafat knows that they want to make a mere symbol out of him. First they brought in Salam Fiad to take away his freedom of economic decision, and now they bring in Abu Mazen and Dahlan to take away his military powers.”

Professor Mudar Kassis of Bir Zeit University likewise sees no substantive difference, but rather one of nuance:

“I can’t see any significant evidence of a difference in political vision between the two. Obviously, there are differences that, in a natural situation, should be considered secondary. These are of two origins: the first can be summarized in such terms as personality, attitude, temper, etcé; the second is Abu Mazen’s freedom from power constraints, in the sense that he is not defending a long history of being the symbol of a cause.

“Nevertheless, the situation in Palestine is not natural, and this fact makes such minor differences significant. Abu Mazen is better accepted by world leaders today, does not face an Israeli veto, and will be given a grace period to develop his approach.”

Dr. Musa Budeiri believes that Arafat’s recalcitrance represents the national line:

“For years people have been saying that Arafat is going to betray us, but here we are, still waiting for the betrayalé In the present situation, the sole credit Arafat has consists in the fact that he doesn’t give the Israelis and the Americans what they want. It doesn’t really matter why, whether because he can’t or because he doesn’t want to. In this respect he expresses the current, although this current leads nowhere.”

I asked Hani Issawi whether the tension between the two derives from different foci of power within Palestinian society é or within Fatah itself?

Issawi: “The more independent people in Fatah, who still believe in the national struggle, view Abu Mazen as an American-Israeli ‘project’. In this respect they are, as it were, closer to Arafat. But again, this is not a matter of principle. Their opposition may also be understood as arising from selfish reasons. They see that Abu Mazen favors the technocrats over the political activists. As for ‘foci of power’, people understand from the outcome of the recent Gulf War that if America wants someone, then he’s strong. It doesn’t depend on him or his history or his leadership. He needn’t have power of his own é his power derives from America. Concerning Abu Mazen, I think Israel will want to present him as the savior of the Palestinian people. It will try to create a popular base for him that at least will keep folks quiet. As for Arafat, they needn’t worry. Even if he still has power, he won’t dare to use it.”

Depending on events, however, Arafat may have more room for maneuver than Issawi predicts. If little or nothing improves in the Territories, he may exploit the people’s discontent to undermine Abu Mazen. He remains the standard bearer for the Intifada (whatever his motives for backing it may have been), and Abu Mazen stands for an end to armed struggle. If Abu Mazen fails to control the security forces, or if he does do so é but without Israeli concessions in return, Arafat will know how to use the popular discontent. Furthermore, the progress of the Road Map depends on the Quartet’s ability to pressure each of the sides. In order to apply such pressure, however, the Quartet must sing in harmony. It didn’t in the case of Iraq. Arafat will attempt to play Europe off against America.

Democracy é without bayonets, please

The coming period will be one of testing in both Iraq and Palestine. Militarily, the US and Israel have shown, by virtue of superior technology, that they are in control on the ground. It is one thing to conquer a country, however, and quite another to create a new political system there. To justify its conquest of Iraq, the US will need to lay the groundwork for a democratic regime, a showcase for the rest of the Arab world. In the Territories too, according to Sharon, there must arise a democratic regime, orderly and clean of corruption. Yet both the US and Israel speak with forked tongues. It will not do to impose a political solution that does not reflect reality on the ground. Both the Iraqis and the Palestinians have been subject for years to severe collective punishment. Their economies were wiped out, their political systems corrupted. In both there developed a leadership vacuum. The scenes of looting in Iraq and the chaos in the Palestinian areas both express the identical problem. Into this emptiness of poverty, ignorance and dead-end streets, one entity alone can penetrate: political Islam.

“It has to be clear,” explains Mudar Kassis, “that the military option can be initiated by a leadership only if there is a fertile environment in which it can be justified and propagated. Once the option is chosen, the same leadership cannot stop it, unless there is sufficient reason to justify this. Only then can this leadership pressure some unwilling factors to halt their actions, provided that the population in general supports such a halt.”

The American-Israeli approach has been to pressure the Palestinian leader, so that he in turn would influence the people under him. But here lies the catch: the moment the leader yields to the pressure, he loses his credibility with his people é and loses, thereby, his ability to influence them. That is what happened to Arafat in the 90’s: he was able to regain his influence only by rejecting the proposals at Camp David. Democracy depends, in the end, on the measure of agreement between leaders and the people.

Does Israel think that the Palestinians, as a people, are blind? Does it think they don’t see that external forces are dictating who is to lead them? They do see, and they scorn their occupiers, yet they haven’t the strength to oppose them. Here is the rub. Like the Iraqis, the Palestinian people is presently too weak to produce an alternative to its oppressor, but it is strong enough to foil the oppressor’s designs. Democracy on the point of a bayonet may spark, indeed, a political process, but without support from the people, it cannot see it through.

Israel may swagger and boast, for now, about how it neutralized Arafat, but it will soon find itself in a situation like Camp David. There Arafat said “No!” because the people said “No!” Abu Mazen will not be able to lower the threshold of the people’s “No!” The result will likely be Intifada III: “a question of time”.

Roni Ben Efrat is the editor of Challenge magazine.