Democracy Denied

The American and European support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ ultimatum/threat to the governing Hamas party — calling a “national referendum” — is destructive of Palestinian democracy and Palestinian-Israeli relations . . .Rami Khouri writes

The symbolism of political dynamics in Palestinian-Israeli-American relations this week was striking, and troubling. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was in Washington doing the seasonal Israeli-American love dance and celebrating the virtues of their shared democratic values. At the same time, these same Israeli and American governments were killing democracy in Palestine, by sending money, guns and political support to shore up beleaguered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his confrontation with the Hamas-led government that had won the January elections.

Abbas’ ultimatum/threat May 25, that he would call a national referendum if Hamas did not within ten days accept his terms for recognizing and negotiating with Israel heightens the absurdities that now define Israeli-Palestinian-American relations. Students of history, political science and physics chaos theory should document and savor these days with enthusiasm, for rarely does one get such a chance to watch the formulation and application of policies that are guaranteed to achieve exactly the opposite of their intended results. Those of us who continue to marvel at the audacity and propensity for long-term instability and violence generated by French and British colonial policies in the Middle East in the 20th Century are now astounded to see Israelis and Americans carry the torch of imperial destruction and incoherence into the 21st Century.

The United States and Israel, now supported by their friends in Europe with silicone backbones, are interfering in domestic Palestinian affairs in a shortsighted, biased manner that will reduce, not increase, the chances of promoting democracy, stability, good governance, and peace negotiations. Their policy of boycotting and financially starving the elected, Hamas-led government and shoring up Abbas’ Fateh faction is more likely to achieve the following five macabre goals simultaneously:

1. Foster more street fighting and political battles between Hamas and Fateh, leading to greater instability;

2. Delegitimize the validity or relevance of democratic elections in the eyes of Palestinians and most other Arabs, perhaps setting back the indigenous drive for Arab electoral democracy a decade or a generation;

3. Bury the already faded credibility of President Abbas by making him an overt stooge of Israel and the United States, effectively turning Fateh into little more than an Israeli-American militia;

4. Enhance the growing regional camp of anti-American, anti-Israeli adherents, fanned variously by Iran and Syria, by mainstream Islamist parties like Hamas, Hizbullah and the Muslim Brotherhood, and, in some cases, by Osama Bin Laden and his terrorist ilk;

5. Weaken the credibility and durability of “moderate” Arab regimes that are friendly with Israel and the United States, some of which have already started to increase their reliance on police state methods of governance.

These consequences may happen simultaneously, or sequentially. But they will happen for sure to some degree, because they are the proven historical consequence of the dynamic before our eyes these days: Foreign military powers that use their brute force and political influence to redraw the domestic Arab and Middle Eastern order to their liking always get their way in the short run, but also always leave behind a structurally unstable situation that eventually blows up because it was neither designed by the locals nor satisfactorily responds to their best interests or legitimate rights.

Blatant interference in Palestinian domestic affairs by Israel, the United States and a neo-flaccid Europe can never substitute for an organic, indigenous democratic process by which the Palestinians reach a national consensus on domestic governance and ties with Israel. The municipal and parliamentary elections of the past two years were critical milestones on that path, which the US, Israel and Europe wisely supported.

Their out-of-control response to the Hamas victory because of Hamas’ refusal to recognize Israel in its current colonial-occupation mode is shortsighted to the degree of being juvenile. The better approach would be to engage Hamas politically in order to nudge it to change those of its policies which are deemed unacceptable by the global consensus, and to make this possible by prodding Israel likewise to change those of its policies — colonization, collective punishments, routine murder — that the world deems equally criminal and unacceptable.

That will not happen for now, it seems, so we have the alternative of Israeli-American-European support for Abbas and Fateh, including the referendum that Abbas has now unsheathed as the new weapon with which to fight Hamas and Palestinian public opinion. The problem here is that the referendum that Abbas brandishes as a crude instrument of American-Israeli hysteria will be seen by Palestinians, and much of the rest of this region, as anti-democratic revenge, rather than as a credible expression of public opinion or democratic self-determination.

We seem to get back to the core problem that prevailing Middle Eastern and global power elites want: to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through compulsory Palestinian concessions and imposed Israeli gains, enforced by the gun and by starvation sanctions if need be. This approach has not worked since the first modern Zionist colonies in Palestine a century and a quarter ago, and it will not work today. It did not work for the British in India or the French in Algeria, and it will not work for the Israelis and Americans in Palestine today. Ask the students of history, political science and chaos theory.

Rami G. Khouri is editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star, published throughout the Middle East with the International Herald Tribune.

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