January 27, 2006

Living with democracy

It was about ten years ago when a Palestinian friend of mine and I were talking about the recent Israeli election. Benyamin Netanyahu had won and my friend's response was to shrug, put his hands up and say "hey, we did our job. We elected the guy we were supposed to elect."

The guy was, of course, Yasir Arafat, who easily won the first popular vote inside Palestine made possible by the Oslo Accords of 1993. In order for the peace process to continue, it was assumed, the Palestinians would elect Arafat and the Israelis would elect Shimon Peres, the right hand man of the late martyr, Yitzhak Rabin and everybody would live happily ever after.

However, after Hamas' terror campaign of suicide bombers blowing up buses and Peres' apparent inability to stop it, the Israeli electorate was in a less peacemaking mood and found the vengeful rhetoric of Netanyahu far more appealing. In Netanyahu, it was the Palestinians who lacked a "partner for peace," and indeed, Oslo died a painful, miserable death just as Mr. Netanyahu wished.

The sweeping victory of Hamas yesterday is really no surprise, except perhaps in just how overwhelming it was. Fatah, the most popular of the Palestinian parties to make up the PLO and later the Palestinian Authority, had long lost any credibility among the Palestinian population. Mahmoud Abbas, who has taken Arafat's place, has a $2 million mansion in Gaza, the most densely populated place on the planet. The corruption is so bad that even my Jordanian-American godfather admitted to me that if he were Palestinian, he would have to think twice about voting for Fatah, and he's Christian!

So, now it's the Palestinians who have not "done their job." They elected the "wrong guys," and the Bush Administration, the Israelis, even Jimmy Carter insist that there is no way they will deal with Hamas as it is a terrorist organization (which is only partly true) and does not recognize the right of Israel to exist (though it has dropped its call for the destruction of Israel from its charter). Yet, as my godfather, a political economist, pointed out to me the other day when Hamas' triumph was imminent, there really is no legitimate reason why this should be problematic for the international community.

"Nobody in the West screamed when the Israelis made Ariel Sharon prime minister. The Good Lord knows that Mr. "Jordan is Palestine," the Butcher of Sabra and Shatila himself didn't come with sterling credentials for peace."

Why is it that the Americans can work with an Israeli who doesn't recognize the rights of Palestinians but not the other way around? Why should we assume that the Israeli government is any less of a terrorist organization because it uses F-16 bombers and Apache helicopters within densely populated regions not only to assassinate terrorists but also with the aim of getting the civilian population to withdraw support for Hamas et. al.?

While I do not agree with Hamas' use of suicide bombing, I know its members are not a bunch of madmen (and women). It is an astute political organization that knows what it can and cannot get away with. And while the Palestinian people may have given them political power, Hamas also knows that Palestinians by and large do not support its refusal to recognize the State of Israel. Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki has found that “for the first time since the start of the peace process, a majority of Palestinians support a compromise settlement that is acceptable to a majority of Israelis.” Michael Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum continues to quote from Shikaki's report:

According to the USIP-sponsored poll “a majority of Palestinians are willing to accept the two-state solution by which “Palestinians recognize Israel ‘as the state of the Jewish people’ and Palestine [the West Bank and Gaza] ‘as the state of the Palestinian people.’ In June 2003, 52 percent supported and 46 percent opposed this formula, and by September 2005 support rose to 63 percent and opposition dropped to 35 percent.”

He goes on to explain that, "the Shikaki poll shows...that Hamas will have no mandate to reignite the intifada."

We may not like the results of the Palestinian election but if they are designated “free and fair” by the US National Democratic Institute and the other international observers, we will have to figure out some way to come to terms with them.

And here’s the good news. A Hamas in power will itself have to come to terms with a Palestinian populace that supports its social programs and lack of corruption but opposes its stance on Israel.

That is why the diplomatic process will survive next Wednesday’s Palestinian election (and certainly Israel’s on March 28). Public opinion matters in democracies which is why a democratic Palestinian election is a step in the right direction even if we don’t like the guys who win.

If the U.S. is truly serious about creating democracy in the Middle East (and I admit, I'm a bit skeptical of this administration's motives here), then we have to learn to live with what democracy produces. If democracy is good enough for Americans (and to all you out there who might think otherwise after November 2004, it really is) and good enough for the Israelis, then certainly it's good enough for the Palestinians