Palestine: essays in democracy

Posted: Aug 02, 2002 12:00 AM
!--BEGIN_TEXT-->It has been a month since President Bush announced that Yasser Arafat needed to be removed before the United States could acknowledge Palestine as a nascent state. The president entered a few more requirements for an acceptable state, among them that there should be an end to corruption, a task which, at home, he has assigned to Congress.

The thoughts were sublime, and it's not entirely a bad idea that paradigmatic reforms should here and there be recommended by world leaders. The pope, of course, does this all the time, and should. And we hear the grand injunctions whenever the United Nations meets or world leaders convene. The attraction of saluting the ideal is so great we don't even notice when rank sinners edge their way into the chorus and sing along lustily. The Soviet Union ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Convention in 1973, about 18 years before the Soviet Union began to show any interest in human rights.

The developments in our war to civilize Arafat are striking. The terrorism goes on, but Arafat now regularly denounces it. We are left to ask whether the denunciation is done with forked tongue, or whether he is actually struggling to alter the old ways. He might be thought to be doing this for the reason that Arafat is adamantly in love with such authority as he does exercise. In order to appease the Jordanians, Egyptians, Saudis and Syrians, he needs to persuade his neighbors that he can control the destiny of Palestine.

And this is the question. Is what Israel continues to see, state terrorism or individual terrorism? If Arafat were to go one step forward and enlist his intelligence forces to discover and then to abort scheduled terrorism, is it possible that he would earn the kind of international acceptance he seeks, as leader of a Palestinian state?

What is certainly the case is that the the sponsoring terrorist organizations, most notably the Hamas group, are not going to suspend their work until they are immobilized by internal security. But here Arafat has to fear less the Israelis than his own militants. If he had at his disposal a magic wand that would turn all Palestinian terrorists into ice the moment they set out toward Israel with explosives, can anyone predict with authority whether at this point he'd use those powers? Or in doing so, does he believe that he would be traducing the ultimate democratic mission of Palestine?

And the big question: Is that ultimate vision the incorporation of the West Bank as a state? Or does he believe that the democratic mandate holds the West Bank to be a mere way-station en route to the expulsion of the Jews from Israel?

The end of the state of Israel is simply not going to happen, and one has to proceed on the assumption that Arafat knows this. Some years ago Norman Podhoretz made the point that apparent advances in negotiations between Israel and Palestine were most usefully likened to negotiations between North Vietnam and South Vietnam from 1961 to 1972. No matter what was said, hinted at, endured, suffered, the North Vietnamese were headed for total control of the eastern Indochinese peninsula. By his reckoning, no declarations by the Palestinians, under the auspices of Camp David or Oslo or whatever, can be trusted.

What is not examined here is the role of democratic mechanisms on the Palestinian scene. It is common knowledge that perhaps one-third of the inhabitants of the West Bank yearn simply for a simple cessation of the hostilities, perhaps a third who think themselves armed with counter-warrant to Israel's, entitling them to reclaim the forfeited territories. And then a third who are clericals, professionals, educators, who seek negotiation but are not averse to taking advantage of any perceived weakness in the enemy or in the enemy's supporters.

What does Mr. Bush look for, then, as the likeliest conciliation of these forces? That they will cling to Arafat as their democratically elected leader? Do they look to him to judge the initiatives of the terrorists? When Israeli thunder strikes at Hamas leaders in the middle of the night, do such Palestinians view this as nothing more than a vicissitude of war?

Mr. Bush will no doubt continue with the general injunctions to democratic arrangements in Palestine without Arafat as leader. But these cannot plausibly reform the West Bank until there is a stout opposition press and political opposition. And there will never be a political opposition that cedes the existing territories in the West Bank, housing 200,000 Israelis, to the enemy. Bush can't wrest democracy from a stone, not even in sacred historical territories.