Natural colonialists - or, more clearly, Orientalists - cannot conceive of the possibility that of all the Arabs, the Palestinians will be the ones to adopt democracy as a system of government. For reasons of political convenience, these people are seizing on the demand raised by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that makes the reform of Palestinian democracy a condition for negotiations, while also assuming, and in large measure correctly, that this is nothing but a trick that is designed to torpedo any possible political negotiations.
By taking this line of thought, they absolve themselves of having to confront the question of whether Arab democracy is possible in the first place. They assume a priori that this is an unfair demand.
Supporting Sharon's demand for democratization in order to rule out totally the possibility that a democratic Palestinian state will be established is too convenient by half. No one disputes the fact that for Sharon it makes no difference whether a tsar or a youth council rules the Palestinian Authority. Sharon is in good company in this approach, along with Western leaders, democrats and civilized people of all stripes who have done business, and continue to do business, with states and governments that have perpetrated crimes against humanity. After all, it is easier to strike a deal or reach tacit understanding with an absolute leader than with a leader who has to cope with democratic processes and political pressures.
It's possible that President George W. Bush would prefer an autocratic Israel rather than the pluralist regime that exists and is interfering with the administration's desire to export its ideas and is perhaps also having an adverse effect on American interests in other areas, too.
But to dismiss Sharon's demand for Palestinian democracy on the ground that this constitutes intervention in the internal affairs of another society and is an attempt to impose governmental norms on the part of the occupier, is no more enlightened or liberal than Sharon's demand. That attitude derives from a primeval conclusion that the Palestinians, like all Arabs, are incapable of adopting democratic methods of rule. It is as though they are afflicted with an innate disability that derives from their character, their history and the fundamental religious domination in their society, which makes any demand for democratization as unrealistic as insisting that an amputee take part in a race.
Various Middle Eastern experts have fashioned impressive careers by preoccupying themselves with proving that the Arabs are unfit and unable to manage a democratic regime. They found convenient partners for this approach among Islamic intellectuals and a few Arab leaders, who promise that no democratic idea will undercut the thesis, or worse - undermine the regime's survival. Yet it is precisely among the Palestinians that this monolithic approach by the Arabs may collapse, since a Palestinian state has not yet been established and a traditional regime has not taken root among the Palestinians.
Their society has consistently shown contempt for the governmental methods of the Arab states, and during the period of the intifada a number of extremely sharp anti-Arab pronouncements have emanated from the Palestinians. This is the most advanced knowledge-based society in the Middle East and among the secular societies. For example, there is no religious establishment that imposes limits on what Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat can do or that validates his rule. There is no Palestinian institution to compare with Al-Azhar, the powerful religious institution in Egypt. When the peace process was still breathing, the Egyptian intellectual Amin al-Mahdi wrote that he hoped a Palestinian state would be established because it would be the only democracy in the Middle East and would be able to serve as an exemplary model for the citizens of the Arab states who would demand that their leaders introduce democratic rule.
The establishment of a democratic Palestinian state - one that is not dependent on the caprices of one leader and that allows the "street" to be relevant all the time - should be a clear-cut Israeli interest. This is neither an altruistic aspiration that seeks to benefit another society, nor a political ploy. It is based on the rule according to which democracies do not go to war with one another and that political continuity is not decided by one leader, rather by the state and its institutions, and its citizens are the guarantee of that continuity.
Palestinian democracy will not be established by means of a fiat from the Prime Minister's Office. Nevertheless, it is a legitimate Israeli aspiration - and it has a chance.
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