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Jewish Journal

The Democracy Trap

by James D. Besser

July 4, 2002 | 8:00 pm

In diplomacy, it's important to be careful what you wish for, because you may get it in spades.

That's the joker in the deck as the Bush administration begins looking for ways to implement President Bush's latest Mideast vision -- a stunning policy turnabout that demands serious democratic reforms in the Palestinian Authority as a prerequisite to U.S. support for statehood. The most critical reform is the removal of Yasser Arafat as Palestinian leader and terrorist-in-chief.

The new policy demanding "a new and different Palestinian leadership" will also generate pressure on the administration to apply the same principles to its dealings with other Middle Eastern states. These include allies such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which regard every flicker of democracy as toxic. That represents a giant time bomb in broader U.S. policy in the region.

The most obvious gap in the new Bush approach is its assumption that the Palestinian people really want peace, and that it's just a corrupt, unaccountable leadership that wants to intensify the fight against Israel, said Daniel Pipes, a longtime peace process critic and president of the Middle East Forum.

"It assumes that the Palestinian people have accepted Israel, and that bringing good governance will bring peace," he said. "There's no evidence to back that up. The Palestinian public is extremely radical."

Polls show strong popular support for suicide bombings and inconsistent support for peace negotiations with Israel. According to some analysts, the new squeeze on Arafat -- who has called for presidential elections in January -- has just increased his popularity, at least for now.

That opens up several prospects that could upset the administration's new plans: Arafat could get resoundingly reelected, or he could be replaced -- democratically -- by someone even worse, possibly by Islamic radicals.

"What happens if you have elections and the Palestinians choose somebody you don't happen to like?" asked Edward S. Walker, president of the Middle East Institute and a former U.S. ambassador to Israel. "Do you go back then and say, 'That's not what we had in mind?'

"The problem is, if you want democracy and are serious about it, you have to accept the results. And the results today would not be something that would please the United States or Israel," he said.

Walker said that Bush's focus on exporting democracy to the Palestinian Authority ignores critical questions of sequencing. "What's missing is the how-to-get-there part," he said. "Democratization has to be integrated into changes of attitude on the ground, otherwise, elections are going to wind up with some very unfortunate results."

Walker, like other supporters of an active peace process, also worries that the green light Bush flashed to Ariel Sharon last month could lead to Israeli policies that just fuel the anger among the same Palestinian voters who they are counting on to "reform" Palestinian governance.

In the long term, the new U.S. policy of demanding democratization could produce a climate more favorable to peace.

Robert J. Lieber, a professor of government at Georgetown University, said that "democracy by itself is not the answer, but it could provide a contribution to the answer. A demagogue and a dictator may be more likely to resort to inflammatory appeals to legitimate himself than a democratically elected leader," he said.

The problem is how to get there and what role democratization should play in the effort to tamp down today's violence. The new Bush approach seems unlikely to help produce a stable cease-fire now, and it could make the effort all the more difficult. Free, open elections in the current climate are unlikely; so is the prospect of more moderate leadership rising to the fore.

The policy also poses serious problems as far as other U.S. allies are concerned. Washington has been more than willing to look the other way as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, among others, trample human rights and quash any hint of democratic reform. They may be authoritarian regimes, but they're our authoritarian regimes.

"That hypocrisy has always been a problem in our dealings in that part of the world," said a top pro-Israel activist here. "It will be much harder in the weeks and months ahead to pretend that the Saudis believe in the same values we say we're fighting for in the region. If we try, we risk our credibility."

There will be huge pressure on the U.S. by its Arab allies for the administration to continue the sham that we are all fighting for the same values, despite the demand for democratization in Gaza and the West Bank. Then, if the president succumbs, the smug Europeans will use that as an excuse to spurn Washington's appeals for support.

The new focus on democracy will touch off diplomatic currents that will affect U.S. policy in unforeseen ways. And for now, it is unlikely to do much to tamp down terrorism that has produced so much recent Mideast misery, especially in the past 21 months.

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