Sunday, April 28, 2002

as published in this week's College Hill Independent

Toward Palestinian Democracy
Refocusing the debate
By Ari Johnson

As violent conflict continues between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, rhetorical guns blaze in America. Students, journalists, intellectuals, and anyone who has recently watched CNN consider it their duty to tackle what they consider the "important" questions:

"Is Israeli military action in the West Bank justified?"

"Which government's actions are more atrocious?"

"Which prominent politician has made the more inflammatory or hateful statement?"

"Who has conspired with whom to commit violence against whom?"

They generally culminate in the unsolvable quandary: "Who is to blame?"

These questions, tempting routes for intellectual jingoism, are the fodder of warmongers. Are you Pro-Palestinian? Anti-Israeli? Pro-Israeli? Anti-Palestinian?

Pick a side, and you've joined the conflict. You find on your "side," once you have joined, volumes of material to defame the opposition and trumpet its wrongdoings, as well as extensive guidelines to forgive, contextualize and defend the transgressions of your side's leaders. The argumentative weapons are readily at hand, and the activist infrastructure already set up to support the battle. Intellectual battles like this can only perpetuate the greater conflict.

If intellectual debates are to productively serve the interests of the Israeli people, the Palestinian people, and the American people, they must take a drastically different turn, embracing a complexity that extends beyond sympathetic identification with anguished Palestinian and Israeli mothers. They must, foremost, ask a question that few people seem to remember to ask:

How can we build a Palestinian state?

To understand why the popularly debated questions do not serve the needs of the Palestinian, Israeli, or American peoples, we must first realize that the Palestinian people have been disowned universally. No government?not the Israeli government, not the US government, not any of the Arab governments, and least of all the leadership of the Palestinian Authority itself?has actively represented the interests and the needs of the Palestinian people.

Before 1967, the West Bank was part of Jordan; Jordan and surrounding Arab nations refused to assist and absorb Palestinian refugees that fled to them. After 1967, the West Bank fell under Israeli military control as a result of the Six Day War between Israel and the Arab nations that surrounded them.

When Israel and the United States finally stepped to the table to discuss the creation of a Palestinian state in the early 1990s, both of these democratic governments chose to support and strengthen Yassir Arafat, a dictator, as their partner in negotiations. Implicit in this decision to support dictatorship was the refusal by two democratic governments to have faith in the applicability of the very ideals upon which they were founded.

As Asla Aydintasbas writes on, "Since the beginning of the Oslo peace process, Washington and Israel's desire to deal with a Palestinian strongman ? who could control his population, keep a tight lid on popular dissatisfaction in the West Bank and Gaza and deliver on promises to the West ? has consistently salvaged Arafat's standing with his people, despite his increasingly repressive ways."

Aydintasbas explains that, during the past ten years that the US and Israel supported Yassir Arafat's leadership, "large sectors of the Palestinian public had become disenchanted with the corruption and the despotism of Arafat's government, that human rights abuses had increased under his security structure, that journalists and opponents complained of daily infringements on free speech, that corruption by P.A. officials is legendary."

In the face of Arafat's failure as a leader and a peace negotiator, continued debate over Arafat's "successor"?candidates for which fall almost exclusively among Arafat's protégés?reinforces the dream of a benevolent dictator who will serve the interests of the US and Israel.

With this kind of picture in mind, it is easy to see how passionate debates can continue passing around blame for the current situation of Palestinian people. In this mess of violent rhetoric, the interests of the Palestinian people remain lost. How will the interests of the Palestinian people be served? Certainly, the end of violence is not even close to sufficient.

"The time has come for the democratic world, including the one state that shares its values in the Middle East, to stop placing its faith in corrupt, authoritarian leaders and start helping the Palestinian people directly," writes Israeli Deputy Prime Minister and former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky.

Democratization provides the most promising route to ensure that the Palestinian people can realize their aspirations and their human rights. Surely, the democratization that is needed is a far cry from what the Palestinian people have encountered thus far.

Elections alone will not bring democracy: Yassir Arafat was "elected" in 1996 by an 88 percent vote against no other viable candidates, outside of any context of open debate. Three years ago, when Arafat's elected term expired without calls for reelections, only 28 percent of Palestinians said they believed their government was moving toward a democracy that protected human rights, according to the Center for Palestinian Research and Studies.

Democracy requires open forums for debate and discussion. Democracy requires education. Democracy requires investment in building a stable economic infrastructure. Democracy requires the Palestinian people to be able to learn about and realize their own rights, and the ways they can work to serve them.

Democracy requires leadership with accountability. Democracy will require thoroughly planned and well-coordinated efforts by the international community. Democracy is not easy or fast or cheap.

But the only way this conflict will end is with the creation of a Palestinian state. A Palestinian state will only be created when Israel can trust in the transparency of its government's endeavors and support its existence. That transparency will only come with democracy.

"As Palestinians, what do we need? We need human rights development," explained a Palestinian activist from the West Bank, speaking under the condition of anonymity. "We need to create livelihood for the average Palestinian."

So when Bush administration officials head to the West Bank for meetings in Yassir Arafat's headquarters, perhaps they should be turning their efforts instead to Palestinian communities and classrooms. And when the Israeli government sends troops into the West Bank to destroy terrorist infrastructure, it should invest in leaving viable social and economic infrastructure in its place. Martyr awards from Yassir Arafat and Saddam Hussein become much less appealing when you can find a job and feed your children.

And when Brown students sit down to lunch at the Ratty, instead of taking up arms with combating armies, we should sit down and break bread with each other, and consider what can be done to rebuild Palestinian lives.

Ari Johnson B'04 (Ari_Johnson@ is a soldier of love. So send him some, and let him know what you think.