Disengagement and democracy

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is maneuvering to establish a broader-based government in order to proceed with disengagement from the Gaza Strip. The alternatives to such a government appear to be either new elections or a right-religious coalition under Binyamin Netanyahu.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei (Abu Ala) tendered his resignation against the backdrop of growing anarchy in the Gaza Strip. In the Palestinian case, there is no clear alternative to the present government–other than more anarchy.

The obvious connection between the two governmental crises is the advent of Sharon’s disengagement plan. In the Israeli case, Sharon’s center-right coalition collapsed over the issue; his challenge is to put together a pro-disengagement coalition with a comfortable majority, despite the reservations of many in his own Likud party concerning both disengagement and the entry of the Labor party into the coalition.

In the Palestinian case, the prospect of Israel’s departure beginning in March 2005 has further destabilized an already chaotic situation in the Gaza Strip. Local power brokers there vie for control by means of violent demonstrations, abductions, and elections to Fatah branches. The authority of Qurei and his superior, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, is being challenged and eroded.

In a broader sense, Sharon is following in the footsteps of all his predecessors since the late 1980s–Shamir, Rabin/Peres, Netanyahu, and Barak–each of whom was eventually unable to remain in office because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict/peace process destabilized the coalition. And while Qurei in his resignation statement did cite the economy alongside anarchy and the absence of a peace process as reasons for his intention to leave office, clearly in the Palestinian case too the cause is the conflict and its ramifications.

In Israel, the split in public opinion over the Palestinian issue finds expression in an orderly parliamentary procedure that follows constitutional rules. While that procedure is flawed and problematic and has thus far proven incapable of delivering on a peaceful resolution, it remains better than all the alternatives. In this regard the greatest threat to disengagement is the intention of extremists among the ideological settler minority to bypass the democratic process, while the lesser threat is the built-in constraint within the Israeli system that allows a highly energized political minority like the settlers to delay or even disable the process.

In contrast, Palestinians in their current dilemma have nothing by way of democratic precedent and little in terms of democratic practice to fall back on. They have Arafat, and he is increasingly understood, even by them, to be part of the problem rather than the solution. While some of Sharon’s policies of the past three years have undoubtedly deliberately destabilized Palestine–Israel’s prime minister seemingly does not believe in genuine peace with our Arab neighbors–at this juncture the Palestinians have only themselves to blame. The dynamic in Gaza is liable increasingly to resemble Lebanon, or even Somalia; that would be disastrous for the entire region.

One way or another, the interaction between Israeli-Palestinian peace and the functioning or malfunctioning of democracy in both countries could not be more obvious. While the conventional wisdom of the Bush administration and many on the Israeli right holds that democracy–Palestinian, Iraqi–must precede peace and stability, this appears to be a luxury we in Israel are increasingly unable to afford. On the contrary, Israeli-Palestinian peace, or even far-reaching unilateral separation initiated by Israel, could have the beneficial effect on Israeli democracy of finally removing or at least minimizing a divisive political issue that has been stymieing the system for nearly two decades.

On the Palestinian side, the problems are more complex; there are no political precedents for linking greater democracy with peace, or vice versa. There has been one democratic election, in January 1996, followed to a large extent by paralysis, corruption, and a culture of violence. Now the mere threat of Israeli withdrawal has further exacerbated instability.

Yet there are many democratically minded people in Palestine who see in Israeli withdrawal an opportunity for Palestinians to place their country back on the road to peace and democracy. We can only hope that eventually they will have the upper hand.