Israel's vice premier declared Monday that many Arab countries aren't ready for democracy _ a comment sure to rankle many in the Middle East, where thousands have died and thousands more have risked their lives in uprisings against brutal dictators.
Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon said Israel learned a bitter lesson about democracy in the Middle East when Islamist Hamas militants came to power in free elections in Palestinian territories in 2006. The following year, the group violently overran the Gaza Strip, ousting forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas.
Democratic elections, Yaalon said, don't necessarily make for democratic practices.
"We are not sure, to say the least, what we witness now is real democratization," he told a group of foreign journalists. "Hamas exploited the democratic rules of the game ... to impose a non-democratic regime."
"We believe that you can't reach democracy by elections," he added. "We believe in a long process. It should start by education."
Tunisia _ which does not border Israel _ might be ripe for democracy, he said. But Palestinians, he said, are not.
"We believe the Palestinian society is not mature (enough) to exercise civil society," he said.
Immediately after Hamas' election victory, the militant group "began to kill the opposition and to throw the (rival) Fatah activists from the 18th floor of a skyscraper," Yaalon said, referring to an event during the 2007 takeover.
Palestinians argue that Israel and the West applied double standards, by preaching democracy but then refusing to recognize the results of the 2006 election, widely perceived as fair and free.
Palestinian spokesman Ghassan Khatib said Yaalon harbors a "racist attitude" that is "unacceptable from an official in the state that is occupying Palestine and is contributing daily to its suffering and problems."
"Israel is the last country in the world that is allowed to speak about human rights because Israel was, throughout the occupation period, violating the rights of the Palestinians through unjustified killing, including of children, demolishing of houses, (and) confiscating of land," he said.
Yaalon, a former Israeli military chief, is a member of the governing Likud party and reflects mainstream thinking in the party.
Palestinians plan elections for May 2012, part of their declared program to reconcile the dueling governments in Hamas-run Gaza and the West Bank, which is controlled by Abbas. The strong showing by Islamist parties in Egypt's recent elections has fueled fears in Israel about future ties between the countries. Israel's 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, a landmark first with an Arab nation, has been the cornerstone of regional stability since.
Egyptians plan to hold two more rounds of elections through January and president elections later next year.
Asked if Egypt was ready for democracy, Yaalon replied: "For Europe, it took hundreds of years, centuries, to bring about real democracy. In the Middle East, we are at the beginning of the first century of democratization."
In another observation, Yaalon said Iran should be faced with the choice of "whether to have a bomb or to survive."
"A nuclear Iran would be a nightmare, not just for Israel, but for Western interests and for the free world," Yaalon said.
In line with official Israeli policy, he called for stiffer economic sanctions on Tehran, and said a military strike should be a "last resort."
Israel, like the West, disbelieves Iran's claims that its nuclear program is designed to produce energy, not weapons.