The Urge for Democracy

A Palestinian state is slowly being born. It will not necessarily look like other states. It will probably not be fully independent. And it will only emerge after a carefully controlled transitional period. Nevertheless, the process of state formation has begun, and the Gaza-Jericho agreement is the first step.

Among the many unanswered questions about this state in the making is whether or not it will be democratic. Israelis have shown little interest in this crucial issue. This is a strange posture for citizens of a democracy to adopt, but it stems from Israel’s primary concern with its own security and widespread skepticism among Israelis about the possibility of democracy anywhere in the Arab world. Moreover, Israeli leaders have found certain advantages in negotiating with Arab dictators, who are not accountable to the vagaries of public opinion. Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat probably would not have made his famous journey to Jerusalem in November 1977 if he had been forced to consult the Egyptian public. Negotiations with Syria’s Hafez al-Assad or Jordan’s King Hussein would not be any easier if democratic governments reigned in either country. In short, few Israelis have concluded that more democracy would cure the confusion that often seems to govern Palestinian politics.

THE CASE FOR DEMOCRACY

Among Palestinians, however, interest in democracy is growing. According to some polls, about three-fourths of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza favor holding elections for a governing authority during the interim period, while only ten percent want the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to appoint the government.

Palestinians care about democracy for several reasons. To put it bluntly, they have had bad experiences with authoritarian Arab regimes. Whether one thinks of Nasser’s Egypt, Assad’s Syria or Saddam’s Iraq, Palestinians have numerous stories of their mistreatment by arbitrary, nondemocratic governments. These memories predispose many Palestinians to think that their own government should avoid the pitfalls of one-man rule.

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