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.


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.

Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have also been influenced by the political life of their closest neighbors, Israel and Jordan. As much as they may abhor Israeli occupation policies, they have seen what a free press can do, witnessed a working parliamentary system, and seen mobilized electorates oust governments that failed to deliver on promises. Palestinians who are citizens of Israel regularly run for election to municipal offices and the Knesset, where they hold several seats. These experiences have been noted by their disenfranchised cousins in the West Bank and Gaza.

In Jordan, Palestinians have seen the flowering of an impressive democratic experiment. Jordanian parliamentary elections have been relatively free, the press debates a wide range of issues, and the king, while retaining immense powers, has ruled in recent years with a comparatively light touch. A surprising number of Palestinians who used to be harsh critics of the Hashemites are now favorably comparing Jordan’s emerging political norms with the political chaos that seems to characterize the PLO.

Finally, many Palestinians have been forced to live abroad, often in Western countries, where they have become used to democratic ways. Palestinians educated in the West are often harsh critics of Western policies, but they admire many aspects of democratic political culture.

But it is not just the experiences of others that Palestinians can look to for models of pluralistic politics. Their own nationalist movement, for all its shortcomings, has nonetheless been comparatively tolerant. The PLO has always been an umbrella movement embracing a number of different tendencies, each of which has had some representation in the official bodies of the PLO. Decisions have often involved lengthy debate and compromise, and voting has been a normal part of Palestinian decision-making.

No one would claim that the PLO has been perfectly democratic, but it has been less authoritarian than many nationalist movements. Even within the core Fatah movement, there was a high degree of collective involvement in decisions until recently. After the Israeli assassination of Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad) and the killing of Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad) by an Abu Nidal terrorist, PLO leader Yasir Arafat became increasingly prone to one-man rule, but previously he had been obliged to listen to the views of the movement’s cofounders.

The intifada, or uprising, which began in late 1987, has diminshed the authoritarian tendencies of Palestinian politics. Traditional leadership structures have been rejected by angry, young, highly politicized Palestinians living under occupation. They have acquired the habit of participating in political life, wielding authority, making decisions, and not always deferring to the diktats of the Tunis-based PLO. Even the less politically active parts of the population have usually gone along with strikes and other forms of protest. These Palestinians will be reluctant to return to a passive role of complying with PLO demands that are often seen as bureaucratic and remote from the concerns of ordinary Palestinians.

While the intifada leaders could play a part in challenging a monopoly of power by the PLO, they may also bring the habit of using violence to settle accounts into the mainstream of Palestinian politics. It will be a major challenge for any leadership to co-opt and resocialize those who have ruled the street and view all authority and law as illegitimate.

The one area where the PLO has never been accountable or democratic has been in its handling of finances. Arafat’s control over the movement came in substantial measure from his control of the purse. No one else knew the full story of the PLO’s finances, and no one else could sign the checks. As the Palestinians approach statehood, this pattern will have to change. This results less from Palestinian opposition to taxation without representation than from the international donor community’s insistence on no aid without transparency. Needed economic assistance will go hand in hand with the creation of governing institutions that are accountable.

Democracy, however, will not come easily. The main obstacles may well be the unwillingness of the PLO leadership to let go, the indifference of the Israelis, and a similar lack of interest in supporting Palestinian democracy on the part of the United States and other Western nations.


The most basic argument against the idea of a democratic Palestine is that it is not a realistic possibility. No established democracy exists in the Arab world, and past experiments with democracy have not gone particularly well. Some conclude from this record that something in Islamic political culture is inimical to democracy. It is often noted that Islamic nations do not make the same differentiation between state and religion, or between public and private spheres of activity, as Western nations do. The notion of popular sovereignty is hard to reconcile with the belief that all behavior should be regulated by the word of God.

This strict and often disparaging interpretation of Arab and Islamic political culture ignores the varieties of Islamic practice. Many Muslims accept ideas derived from the experiences of more secular societies, and many have concluded that a proper interpretation of Islam is compatible with accountable governments, elections, the rule of law, individual rights, tolerance, property rights and other aspects of democracy. Some promising beginnings of democratization can be seen in various parts of the Arab and Islamic world. In this light, it seems wrong to conclude that Palestinian democracy is impossible.

The other argument against a Palestinian democracy accepts that it may well be achievable, but not yet. This view is held by those who believe that democracy requires a fairly large middle class, high levels of literacy and an expanding economy. In such conditions, social conflicts can be accommodated through compromise, winner-take-all outcomes can be avoided, and many people have a vested interest in order and predictability.

Palestinian society has some but not all of the characteristics that seem to go with democracy. There are no ethnic divisions in Palestinian society, and the Christian minority generally lives easily with the Muslim majority. Palestinians thus enjoy an unusual degree of social cohesion and homogeneity compared with most Middle Eastern societies. Palestinians are highly educated and enjoy a living standard, even under occupation, comparable to other developing countries. But there are also enormous disparities of wealth. Refugees live in miserable conditions, while other Palestinians live quite well. Much will depend on whether sustainable economic development can take place so that more Palestinians can enjoy an economic level commensurate with their educational levels.


Democracy is not a panacea for the problems that confront the Palestinians. It will not ensure that good leaders are chosen. But it can help avert the problems of chronically bad government, a widespread phenomenon in the Middle East. The root assumption of democracy, after all, is that people do know when they are being badly ruled and will, given the chance, use the ballot to get rid of corrupt and ineffective leaders. This is why elections matter in an institutionalized democracy. If officials know that they must periodically submit to an election, chances are they will govern with some notion of the public interest in mind. Thus, dictatorship and incompetence will eventually result in public alienation and, if free elections are held, new leaders.

In the case of Algeria, where elections in December 1991 nearly brought the militant Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) to power in early 1992, the argument against military intervention would have been convincing if the FIS had credibly promised elections within a fixed number of years. If the FIS were as bad or incompetent as its critics maintained, it would have been voted out of power. Algerian political culture might have been well served by allowing a populist opposition movement to try its hand at governing. Alternatively, the FIS might have done a reasonably good job of running the country, in which case it would deserve to be reelected. The problem was that the FIS was ambivalent about the entire concept of democracy and elections, and there was good reason to believe that the only free election ever held would be the one that brought the FIS to power.

The analogy in the Palestinian case would be that Hamas or other radical Palestinian groups might do well in elections. Hamas’ democratic credentials are certainly in doubt, but so are those of all the other groups.

What seems important in the Palestinian case is to begin an electoral process that allows for widespread representation, not a winner-take-all system. One would hope that the requirements of managing the transition to independence, the interaction with the international community and pressure from grass-roots organizations would oblige Palestinians to acquire the habits of democratic self-government. After all, democratic norms take root over time as people experience the rules of democracy and see in practice why it is the least bad of all political systems. Democrats are not born; they come by their beliefs through education and practice.

Of course, any democratic experiment can be aborted. The peace process could stagnate, the Likud Party could return to power, democratization in Jordan could fail, or the economy could worsen. Any of these conditions would threaten Palestinian democracy. But they are not inevitable, and they are not reasons to avoid the experience in the first place.


The United States, which has taken a hands-off attitude toward the implementation of the Israeli-PLO agreement, is in a position to lend its weight to the democrats in Palestine. To do so, it needs to use its influence with Israel, Western countries and potential donors to link future economic and diplomatic assistance to Palestinian democratization.

Moreover, the United States should take a more aggressive position promoting Palestinian democracy. At some point, perhaps, in the aftermath of Palestinian elections for a self-governing council, the Clinton administration should find a way to link future support for Palestinian statehood to further steps toward democracy and region-wide peace. For example, the administration could say that its support for eventual Palestinian statehood would be commensurate with the Palestinian commitment to democracy. This could give a substantial boost to Palestinians who aspire to independence, especially those who support the peace process and democracy.

Why should the United States adopt such a position? America has repeatedly said that it supports the development of democracy anywhere in the world, but successive administrations have been remarkably shy about pushing this notion in the Middle East. This stance has led many in the Arab world, especially opposition movements, to complain that the United States has a double standard. In the case of the Palestinians, the United States could support a principle of great importance, democratic governance, and make a contribution to the long-standing goal of Arab-Israeli peace at the same time.

A Palestinian democracy would almost certainly be a better neighbor for Jordan and Israel than a Palestinian dictatorship. A Palestinian democracy would fit more readily into arrangements for regional cooperation and development and have less need for a large armed force. Most important, any agreement it makes with Israel would have greater legitimacy in the eyes of the Palestinian people.

Israeli opposition to the idea of conditional American support for Palestinian statehood could be expected, but many Israelis would appreciate the effort to encourage democracy among their neighbors. The United States would still support Israel on security arrangements to ensure that a future Palestinian state does not become a threat. In time, many Israelis might come to support the concept of a democratic Palestinian state living at peace with Israel.

The United States recognized the PLO only after the Israelis had already done so. The American interest in encouraging Palestinian democracy, and Israel’s seeming indifference, suggest that Washington should now take the lead.

The message for Palestinians in all this could be decisive. At the moment, there is a cloud over the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations because no one is sure how final-status issues will be resolved. Palestinians are being given a long list of things they are unlikely to attain, and their power position means they will be unable to impose their preferences. If the final status of the West Bank and Gaza seems barely preferable to continued occupation, the hard-liners who argue for continued struggle will likely prevail over the PLO mainstream. The one thing most Palestinians in the occupied territories do seem to want is independence and democracy; American support on these key principles would strengthen the hand of those who best understand that they will have to compromise on the tough issues of demilitarization, Jerusalem and borders if they are to achieve their goals.

By supporting Palestinian democracy, the United States would not be ruling out Palestinian-Jordanian arrangements for confederation or federation, or even more far-reaching regional patterns of cooperation, trade and development. In fact, announcing support for Palestinian democracy now, and conditionally supporting statehood in the future, could be part of an initiative to encourage a zone of "peace, development and democracy" that could encompass Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, Turkey and perhaps eventually Syria.

While ambitious and even visionary, these are worthy goals for American diplomacy in a region where substantial American resources can be brought to bear to influence events. By embracing Palestinian democracy, the Clinton administration would be making a major contribution to peace in the Middle East and thereby to American national interests. It would also be upholding a principle that is supposed to be central to American foreign policy, but has been notably missing from our discourse on the Middle East.

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