Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Palestinian Democracy: It's Possible

[Published 28 September 2005 in Hebrew in Ha'aretz newpaper, Israel, under the title "Palestinian democracy: it's possible"; Below is the original English version from which the Hebrew was translated:]

Hillel's Strategic Alternative
By Aryeh Green

Hillel the Elder said, “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others”.

Many people, in their quest for reasonable alternatives to the ‘Greater Israel’ fantasies of the extreme right, not to mention the ‘Peace in our Time’ appeasement fantasies of the extreme left, just might agree this is the option they are looking for now that the withdrawal from Gaza is complete.

As Hillel would probably agree, the solution to the central dilemma depends on how you define the problem. If the issue is how to retain Israeli ownership over the territory and have Jews live there but deny political rights to the Palestinians also living there – we’ve defeated the purpose of the exercise. Like the potential convert who came to Hillel the Elder with the intention of tripping him up by asking (seemingly) for every Jewish law to be related while standing on one leg, this query sets up an impossible quandary. But Hillel took the question and turned it around, responding more to the question of what is the essence of Jewish philosophy rather than attempting to address his questioner’s literal query. We can do the same.

Let us instead ask the question: What configuration will allow Jews and Arabs to live side-by-side in the disputed territories, thereby offering Jews and Israelis access to our beloved heartland of Hebron, Shechem and the hills of Judea and Samaria, and at the same time offering Palestinians freedom and self-determination, even independence?

And the answer then seems obvious: let us “do unto others”. Let us help them create there what we have created here.

For over 50 years, within the borders of pre-1967 Israel, an Arab minority has lived in a Jewish democracy with full civil and political rights; more strikingly perhaps, since 1967, Arab residents of Jerusalem, for instance, have lived in the most free and open Arab society in the region, even while not being citizens of Israel. There is no reason why, in an Arab democracy, Jews and/or Israelis can’t live peacefully, as citizens or as residents. It is clear that when Palestinians are more concerned with their own freedom and prosperity than with destroying Israel and/or killing Jews, various solutions present themselves, from joint sovereignty to cross-border voting relationships, from federation to amicable neighborly relations between two states. At that stage, ideally, just as an American can live in Canada (or Israel) but still vote in US elections as an American citizen, just as a Brit can live all his adult life in southern France but remain loyal to his British heritage and citizenship, so too can an Israeli living in Palestine, and a Palestinian living in Israel, treat his or her nationality and cultural affinity as distinct from any issue of territorial sovereignty.

While esoteric, the explanation is simple. Sincere adherents to the principles of democracy in western society, including in Israel, would shudder at the suggestion to bring a foreign dictator into Israel to restore order and set us on a path to stability and prosperity. Yet this is just the scenario we created in our neighbor’s society – with the parachuting of Yasser Arafat and his cronies from Tunis into the disputed territories and the creation of the Palestinian Authority under his autocratic rule in the Oslo process.

We – with the active encouragement of successive American administrations - did to others what is hateful to us all, allowing Palestinian society to degenerate into a “chaos of weapons” (as one Palestinian democracy activist calls it) driven by a culture of hatred of Jews and Israel nurtured by official Palestinian political, religious and educational leaders, institutions and media. Yitzhak Rabin suggested at Oslo’s birth, that “without human-rights watchdogs like Betzelem, without a Supreme Court and a free press, without bleeding heart liberals,” Arafat would fight Hamas and the other terrorists more successfully than we ever could. Of course Arafat didn’t, but rather used all the resources at his command to increase his own power by encouraging ever-greater hatred of the “external enemy” – Israel. And thus we sealed our own fate, in an ironic and tragic twist of Hillel’s dictum.

Understanding this sequence of events is crucial to appreciating the only realistic alternative in response to the query most on our mind following the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza – how to solve the ‘demographic problem’ in the territory west of the Jordan river.

Last week saw the launch of the Hebrew version of Natan Sharansky’s celebrated book “The Case for Democracy”. Sharansky, with his co-writer Ron Dermer, argues eloquently that promoting democratization is not only good for the Palestinians and other Arabs but is good for Israel and the rest of the world, is possible to achieve, and is right to pursue (without resort to armed coercion). His theories have found a strong following, mostly in America, but now more and more in Europe and even among Israeli leaders, including former Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon and, perhaps, Bibi Netanyahu.

His book is an elaboration of his theories, but these ideas have very practical applications as well. In fact, just over three years ago, Sharansky provided the alternative many seek, in terms Hillel would perhaps appreciate.

His 7-point peace plan, presented to PM Ariel Sharon as well as to President George Bush in mid-2002, following the battle in Jenin, emerged perhaps slightly before its time. Like a good wine and like many good ideas, it has aged now to the point of being not only relevant, but even more robust in application.

Sharansky’s plan offered a significant and detailed prescription for resolving the conflict – leading to real peace which could (or could not) result in a Palestinian state and/or Israelis remaining in the disputed territories – already a unique idea. His program started with the dismantling of the failed PA and the establishment of a Palestinian Administrative Authority, through a coordinating body headed by the US and together with those Arab states which recognize Israel, which would administer the day-to-day activities of the areas. The plan rests on four principles (whether a reformed PA might take on this role or whether even now a replacement ‘PAA’ is still required, with the PA’s unwillingness to assert its authority):
a. Development of democratic norms of civil society among Palestinians including freedom of dissent;
b. Fighting (disarming and dismantling) terror organizations and terrorists, and cessation of incitement against Jews and Israel;
c. Building permanent housing for Palestinian ‘refugees’ and dismantling the refugee camps; and
d. Massive economic development through international aid (structured and supervised).

Here, then, is an alternative worthy of Hillel: An open, democratic, progressive and prosperous Palestinian society (3-5 years in the making, including various educational and cultural programs), wherein at the conclusion of this transition period free elections would be held – and then the democratically-elected leadership of the Palestinians would enter into negotiations with Israel’s leaders to finally resolve our conflict. No ‘Greater Israel’ ignoring Palestinian aspirations for independence; no Judenrein Palestine just waiting for the next opportunity to attack Israel and negotiate further Israeli concessions.

The question above is resolved; Hillel the Elder’s dictum is upheld; Zionism’s claims to the land of Israel are acknowledged while the Palestinian desire for freedom is respected. But such an alternative relies not only on what the Palestinians do; it requires the active encouragement and support of Israel and the entire free world, linking their aid and trade and recognition – let alone territorial concessions - to reforms in Palestinian society.

A free, open and democratic Palestinian society is the only guarantee of Israel’s security and of peace in the region - and changes the entire dynamic of conflict and negotiation. Perhaps with the launch of the local translation of Sharansky’s book, this conversation can now take place in Hebrew, and not only in English across the Atlantic, and thereby affect Israeli government policy as much as it has affected American policy.


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