Bush is right: the Palestinians need new leaders

Posted: Jun 26, 2002 12:00 AM
Whether the Palestinians know it or not, President Bush has paid them a high compliment. He has judged them, in his Monday Rose Garden remarks, capable of moving beyond Yasser Arafat, onto the higher slopes of participatory democracy and free elections. It is more than a compliment really. It is a road map. Here is how to succeed in the modern world, the president might equally well have said. If the Palestinians want peace, what they first must have, Bush said, is "new leaders, new institutions and new security arrangements with their neighbors." If -- preferring death and degeneracy -- they don't want peace, well, excuse us Americans for speaking up. They are on track now -- the easy, downward track to international disgrace and personal extinction. A brief glance at the evidence tells the appalling tale: 600,000 West Bank residents confined to their homes by an Israeli military occupation precipitated by the suicide bomb attacks; all but two West Bank towns returned for now to direct Israeli control; the Gaza Strip and its large population marked down as the next target for restoration of order; the whole Palestinian people, the peaceful along with the warlike, thrown under direct suspicion in their dealings with the Israelis; thousands of lives and jobs lost; yearnings for a plausible and effective local administration effectively squashed; truth subverted by lies and twisted propaganda; a psychotic mind-set -- that of the suicide bomber -- made the primary mark of Palestinian identity; and all this the "gift" of leaders gone astray. A little more such "leadership," and the Palestinian cause will have had it for good. It becomes a little easier at such junctures to appreciate the Churchillian aphorism about democracy: the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried from time to time. For some American and European liberals, acceptance of Arafatian culpability in Mideast violence is an unclimbable hill. Take the loquacious Ted Turner, who last week came under sustained attack for remarks in which he equated Palestinian violence with Israeli counter-violence. "Progressive" religious leaders regularly attempt the same death-defying intellectual feat. Just as sensibly you could have castigated the Poles for, my goodness, actually killing German soldiers who merely happened to be invading the Polish homeland. Calls for "evenhanded" treatment of the two combatant parties in the Middle East are a way for some to exculpate the more favored of the two by seeming to inculpate (with the expected sly wink) both. The Bush peace plan, which makes demands on the Israelis (for example, ultimate withdrawal to the boundaries of 1967), contains its own component of "evenhandedness." It would have to, to receive attention and credence. The Israeli journey to the "center," for purposes of settlement and conciliation, would nevertheless be a shorter one. Israel has never been anything but a functioning democracy. The problems in which the Palestinians wallow -- autocracy and its twin brother, corruption; lack of accountability on the leaders' part; lies presented in the classroom as truth; brutal suppression of critics and the murder of "collaborators" -- are for the Israelis all but non-existent. Israelis, in a political context, can be turbulent and touchy, given to bitter infighting. Nor is any people under the sun exempt from the affliction of the itching palm. This is where democracy and the rule of law come in. Democratic processes, starting with free and open elections, afford the unfailing means for correction, voluntary or involuntary. In Israel, governments fall, and leaders are turned out of office. A new set comes in, empowered to explore different ways and means. Eventually, the voters review those ways and means. Should they want, they can return to where they were before. Or not. Is it contended that the Palestinian people can't function with the same intelligence, freedom and success? Yes. The Palestinians' own leaders in effect make that argument. Case closed.