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Friday, January 07, 2005

Don't mix up Palestinian elections with 'democracy' - Natan Sharansky

What goes on 'over there'
By Natan Sharansky

Albert Einstein once said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting to achieve a different result. We may want to keep this observation in mind when thinking about whether the upcoming Palestinian elections present a new hope for peace.
First, about those elections. While Israel should certainly do everything possible to enable Palestinians to vote, we must not delude ourselves into thinking that these elections will be democratic. Free elections can only occur in a society where people are free to express their opinions without fear of being punished for them. When there is no protection of the right to dissent, when a regime controls the press, when voters and potential opponents are intimidated, what happens in the voting booth matters little. That monitors will probably declare these elections free of fraud should also not earn them a democratic imprimatur. Soviet elections were also free of fraud. There was simply only one party on the ballot.

Fortunately, President Bush is viewing these elections with the proper perspective, asserting that they are "not the sign that democracy has arrived." Rather, he said, they are "the beginning of a process."

Whether this process will be a successful one will depend in large measure on whether we have learned from the mistakes of the past. Oslo failed because its architects and the democratic world that supported Oslo cared little about how Arafat ruled. The fact that Arafat was constructing a society built on fear was not seen as an impediment to peace. On the contrary, Arafat's iron-fisted rule was considered an asset. As Yitzhak Rabin put it, Arafat would fight terror "without a Supreme Court, without B'Tselem, and without bleeding heart liberals."

But this view is fundamentally mistaken. What goes on "over there" is very much our business. Regimes based on fear rather than popular consent need external enemies to sustain their illegitimate rule and therefore turn the societies they control into breeding grounds for terror and hatred. If we return to the Oslo mindset of not caring about what happens within Palestinian society, no peace process will succeed.

While the new Palestinian Authority leader's coronation at the ballot box does not give him the right to speak on behalf of the Palestinians, he can prove himself worthy of his new title by governing on behalf of the Palestinians. That means protecting dissent rather than crushing it, providing a good education for Palestinian youth rather than using schools and the media for incitement, building decent housing for those living in refugee camps rather than using them as pawns in a political struggle against Israel, and enabling an independent middle class to emerge rather than seeking to control all aspects of Palestinian economic life.

Will this new leader govern on behalf of the Palestinians? Much depends on whether the free world, including Israel, insists that he does. Unfortunately, the pervasive assumption among policymakers and diplomats is that what is needed now is not to press the new PA leader to implement democratic reforms but rather to strengthen this "moderate" so that he can fight extremists and make peace with Israel.

Arafat used this lack of concern for how he ruled to consolidate his power by strengthening hatred toward Israel and at the same time avoiding making concessions that he argued might "weaken" him and bring Hamas to power. If the free world adopts the same approach toward Abu Mazen or any other Palestinian leader, the results will be equally disastrous.

Abu Mazen's promise not to confront terror groups, his demand for a so-called right of return for Palestinians to pre-1967 Israel and his railing against the "Zionist enemy" have been dismissed as empty campaign rhetoric. But it may reflect a belief that, just as was true in the past, a free world afraid of "weakening" him will not force him to change course.

But there are also reasons to be optimistic. Foremost among them is Bush's recognition that the key to peace lies in the expansion of freedom and opportunity within Palestinian society. As the leader of the free world, Bush can play a critical role in advancing peace by linking American support for the PA to the regime's willingness to build such a society. With an American president willing to hold Abu Mazen accountable, the chances of inducing real change within Palestinian society are very real.

I am less confident, however, that Israel's government, whatever its eventual composition, will take advantage of this unique opportunity to begin a real peace process based on helping the Palestinians build a free society. Instead, we are divided among those who are determined to return to Oslo, those who endorse unilateralism and those who refuse any concessions under any circumstances.

But none of these approaches will advance peace because none of them will help change what is going on "over there." By stopping the insane policy of supporting dictatorship and instead focusing on helping the Palestinians build a free society, I am confident that we can forge a peace that will stand the test of time.