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Now that the dust has settled
June 27, 2002
Contributed by www.IsraelForum.com
Now that a few days have passed, and there has been time to think about and discuss Pres. Bush's ME policy speech, I feel this speech stands as an historic milestone.
President Bush presented a vision with which most of the world will have a hard time disagreeing: the prospect of a Palestinian state if the Palestinians create democratic institutions, demonstrate they are truly interested in peace, and work out the details through a process of compromise with Israel.
I have heard four major criticisms of this speech, none of which are convincing:
The speech rewards terrorism -- This speech lays out specific conditions under which the U.S. will support the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state. It also makes demands for continued U.S. financial aid, and implies a break with the PA if these demands are not met.
Keep in mind that the U.S. has officially listed several Palestinian groups as terrorists. Also keep in mind that President Bush has steadfastly refused to meet with Arafat. There are now reports that Powell refuses to have further contact with Arafat.
Palestinians are incapable of building a democracy -- When I was growing up in the 1960s the idea that the Soviet Union, a superpower with dominant influence over nearly 1/3 of the world's inhabitants, would simply crumble -- let alone make way for democracy -- was unthinkable. But it happened.
It may not be easy for Palestinians to create a democracy, but it is certainly possible. Given the many competing groups and their exposure to Israel, the Palestinians may be the Arabs most likely to build a democracy. It may take several tries, but it can be done.
Most important, it is in Israel's vital interests (as Natan Sharansky argues) to see to it that the Palestinians establish a democratic state. Peace with dictators is of dubious value. Peace with democratic institutions that, once in place, have real staying power is far prefferable.
Think about it: it is really very hard to argue against democracy, and once people are offered the chance and hear all of the pros and cons it is an idea that will surely take root. Right now, the majority of Palestinians may be eager to be subjects of a dictatorship. But surely some individuals would like to live in freedom, with guaranteed individual rights, and a process by which they can choose and periodically peacefully change their leaders.
Palestinians will just re-elect Arafat; if he is not allowed to run, they will elect Hamas -- Democracies can only function if elected leaders commit to uphold and defend democratic institutions. The U.S. does not have to pretend that a sham democracy is the real thing. It's clear that President Bush is not going to be satisfied if Arafat or some Hamas leader is "elected." The leader must be a real, even if inexperienced, democrat.
These are just words, the only thing that matters are actions -- Of course this is true, but I think many people grossly underestimate the power of words. We have already seen a sea-change merely from the call for reforming the PA. Even the PA has been forced to respond -- an admission that the PA is corrupt, does a lousy job, or is not interested in peace.
Yes, the Father of Modern Terrorism is trying his best to use the call for PA reform to his advantage. But that certainly wasn't his choice. Today, most world leaders agree the PA must reform. With a bit more effort and patience, we may be able to convince most that such reforms absolutely require new leaders not connected with Arafat or any terrorist groups.
It was a wonderful speech, a surprisingly clear vision at a time when most people expected a speech either rewarding terrorism or catering to the idea that somehow Palestinian terrorism is qualitatively different from Al Qaeda terrorism. The Egyptian newspaper that commented in response to the speech "The Arab world will not sleep tonight" spoke for all Arab dictators.
It's about time they have trouble sleeping!