Kenneth Weinstein: I would like to welcome everyone here to today’s event: An Emerging Palestinian Alternative: Can Peace be Achieved Through Democracy?
We thank everyone here for bearing with us as we change venues twice in the last 24 hours to accommodate the ever-growing audience. We are delighted to have three distinguished individuals with us today, Omar Ibrahim Karsou, Richard Perle, and professor Bernard Lewis to examine the possibility of reforming the Palestinian Authority, of democratization, and more importantly, the rule of law in the West Bank and Gaza. Yasser Arafat’s legitimacy has been based in part on two myths: first that he enjoys popular support among the Palestinian people and second, his claim that the only alternatives to him are far worst: Islamic Jihad and Hamas.
The first myth that of Arafat’s popular support, has been shattered by the reaction of the Palestinian people themselves to Arafat since his reemergence in public life. The second myth, that there are no viable democratic alternatives to Arafat and his close associates will be given close scrutiny today. First we will hear from Omar Ibrahim Karsou, a man of enormous moral courage and vision, and then we will hear from two policy experts, Richard Perle and professor Bernard Lewis. I will introduce each of them in turn. Omar Ibrahim Karsou is a West Bank businessman, a human rights activist who hales from Nablus. He has already gained significant attention in the past week, having been profiled in the Wall Street Journal, and he will be the subject of an article in this week’s Weekly Standard that goes to press this evening. Karsou is here today to launch a new group of West Bank and Gaza intellectuals, businessmen, and even members of the Palestinian legislature, called Democracy in Palestine. The dream of Karsou and his associates is of a real and lasting democracy for Palestinian society.
Karsou was born in 1959, to a well-known Palestinian family of bankers. He grew up in the West Bank, attended Buckingham University, then went back home in 1980, to head the family business, first in Jordan, and then in the West Bank. Karsou and his family in fact, held the first banking license offered in the West Bank in 1986. Since then, Karsou has headed the family’s foreign exchange business, which used to be the largest in the West Bank and Jordan, with branches in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Karsou’s wife is American and he has four children. In June 2001, he moved from the West Bank to the U.S., with his wife and children in order to build support for democratic institutions in Palestine. We are honored that he has chosen the Hudson Institute as his venue to unveil this new and important organization.
Omar Karsou: Good afternoon. First of all, I wish to thank the Hudson Institute for awarding me this great opportunity to sit next to two great scholars and address a distinguished audience. Let me start first by saying that, we are indeed going through some sort of groundbreaking moments, both here in the United States and back at home. I can say that this is the first time I am experiencing such serious and committed support for democracy in the Palestinian territories, especially here in Washington. Everyone I have recently met has been convinced that democracy is the only way to go. I don’t think this would have been the case ten years ago. I want to thank the people that have been quite instrumental at helping me speak out for the plight and the legitimate needs of my people, the Palestinians. What we need is the democratization process for the Palestinian society, civil rights, freedom, and to enjoy our lives like everyone in this room.
Now let me tell you a little bit about who I am and what I represent. I am a businessman from the West Bank and I am a Palestinian, I guess, period. And like all Palestinians, I too would like to see a homeland for my people, and would like to work towards that. Just like many thousands of Palestinians, I know and understand and accept that this homeland will be next to the state of Israel, and that its only chance of survival would only come through economic and political harmony with both Israel and Jordan. Now you might be surprised when I say, like all Palestinians, that unfortunately many people in the West to equate the Palestinian struggle with the events of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, the high-jackings in the 1970s by the extremists, and 80s of course, and the suicide bombings of the past few months. This [violence] is not our cause; this is not us. These are not the Palestinians I know, not the Palestinians I am proud to be part of. Because of that, our image has been tarnished, and our cause has been high jacked, by these people, the extremists. Unfortunately also, moderate and peaceful Palestinians have been silenced for years, by Israeli occupation, and after that, by the post-Oslo repression of the Palestinian Authority.
In reality, what do we need, what do Palestinians actually want? This is normally a question I am most often asked. But before we address that, let me say that the polls consistently show that no less than fifty percent of Palestinians support neither Hamas, Islamic Jihad, nor the PA. That is a majority. And that is what we call the silent majority, or the silenced majority, if you like. This is whom we are counting on to lead, hopefully, our homeland to becoming a viable, democratic country. Some people ask why then do the polls show that a majority of Palestinians support suicide bombings? If you are quoting the polls, then why isn’t it the other way? There are clear answers to this. One of them is that Palestinians really do not know the reality of what is going on outside. We are exposed to one-sided media; the full-story is not heard. What we see is the enemy closing in. We are not allowed to see the enemy within. That is one of the reasons. One of the other reasons is that Israeli repression and humiliation on a daily basis is very real to the Palestinians. This is a fact of life we have been living with for no less than 55 years. Roadblocks, incursions, closures, that is a daily practice for us. But more than that actually, we see the Israeli responsibility in that Israel is responsible for so many other things, and I say that, being convinced and seeing what I have, and living in there. Right from 1967, Israel’s main policy towards the Palestinian was that of control, subjugation, and suppression of a potential uprising by people that have been recently occupied. When the uprising finally came 20 years later in 1987, then Israel had to resort to suppression by proxy, by bringing in other oppressors to do, if you like, the dirty work for them, and keeping the Palestinian population in line. I can quote here, the late Prime Minister Rabin, in saying that Arafat does not have to worry about the Supreme Court in his dealings with the Palestinians, while he [Rabin] would have had to deal with them. So they brought in these people [PLO] to actually suppress us and oppress us. Also Israel has only dealt with two kinds of Palestinians; one, what we call the ultra-liberationists, the PLO type, that wanted everything, or the Hamas, the extremists. They have not given a chance to the middle of the road moderates to rise. Israel has not encouraged civil society in the Palestinian territories during the occupation. People ask me about textbooks. Let me tell you, I studied these textbooks under Israeli rule; they are the same textbooks. Israel did not change them, why should the PA change them now? Israel did not try to improve Israeli-Palestinian community relationships that would have cemented peaceful co-existence. Israel did not falsify with Palestinian intelligencia and moderates. Now I am not here to lay blame on Israel and they are not responsible for anything, but this is what most Palestinians see and hear every single day, and they see that right in front of their eyes. Let me cite an example here for you. In the 1980s, the only public university actually that was funded by public funds during Israeli occupation was the Islamic University in Gaza, which is the Hamas stronghold. Now that was set-up to counter the influence of the PLO at the time. So what do we have now? We have two sets of extremists. [And this was all done] instead of just countering the weight of one by helping the moderates, those people that you can have converse and reason with. Now, what do we actually, Palestinians, want out of this, after this whole thing? We want freedom, of course, but unfortunately, freedom has been explained to us, over and over again, that freedom is only freedom from occupation. This is the only form of freedom available. Yet as we all know, freedom is not just freedom from occupation. Freedom also has to do with free speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom to have a business enterprise, freedom to travel, these are all freedoms, but unfortunately, the Palestinian controlled media, is only portraying this [one] type of freedom [from occupation]. So we are actually struggling for one freedom, not the whole picture.
What we don’t want also, is for our children to be killed. I often hear that Palestinians, or Palestinian women, happily send their children to be killed. I don’t know how anybody can actually think that a mother would love to see her child getting killed. I am Palestinian and I do have a mother. That is the most preposterous statement I have ever heard. That is not true. We want our children to live in peace next to other people’s children. We are just human beings like anyone else. We have more children, but we love more of them.
We are also extremely fed up with oppression. We are bewildered that Palestinians, as we pride ourselves with being highly educated, intellectuals, scholars, are throughout the Arab world suppressed. They are not allowed to come back. Even if they are allowed to come back, they would only be allowed to come back if they do not dissent with leadership. We have helped build many Arab countries, but we are not being allowed to build our own, because we have been chosen a leadership that is not representative to us. There is a joke back home that says you don’t really have to be crazy to be here, but it sure helps. That really actually does represent what is going on back there. Nobody understands because nobody is told the truth. We need to be told the truth. We need to tell our people the full picture. We also want, of course, statehood, independence; this will remain the ultimate goal of our people. This is a relentless struggle, until a free, democratic, economically viable, and most importantly, peaceful Palestine is set up next to Israel and Jordan. Don’t forget that the peace process, or violence actually, started right after the fall of the peace process. Now the reason that I am saying this here is to make a point. Before then, at least on a daily basis, a hundred and fifty thousand Palestinians, would cross to Israel, whether to work, conduct business, or do whatever they wanted to do, on a single day, for years. So on any single day that was supposedly, potentially, a hundred and fifty thousand suicide bombers, according to what we hear in the media. Now that is not the case. That only started after the fall of the peace process, the collapse of Camp David of course. Now for Palestinians, for us, we have been told, we have been promised, so many times, “this is the end, its coming, its coming” both by our leadership, and by international leaders. When we saw that Camp David collapsed, most Palestinians lost hope. They were willing, or we were willing to put up with the leadership, hoping for better days to come, because we thought after the conclusion of the peace treaty with Israel, then its our state and we can change it the way we want to. We were told this is going to be a democratic state and we can have elections. We waited for that. When nothing like that happened, the frustration was very much directed at the PA, as much as it was directed at Israel. The frustration was twofold, against two conspiring parties, as far as we are concerned.
So that was the frustration. But to us, it was very easy to see the enemy, and we were told this is the enemy. The enemy is the guy, a 20 year-old man, standing there with an army uniform, who doesn’t speak your language and humiliates you every single day of the week. That is not hard; you can’t miss that one. But what we are not told is that, that twenty year old man who doesn’t speak your language, and humiliates you every single day of the week, is just as frustrated with the situation as you are. This is what we are trying to relate to our people, is that, on both sides, people want to end this nonsense, this violence. Like many other Palestinians, I believe that real negotiations with Israel could only be fruitful if there is more legitimate government that represents the masses, the massive but largely silenced peace camp in the Palestinian society today. This actually means reform, elections. But elections, of course, are not about the election day, it is not actually going to the ballot that day, and voting for a one-party system. Basically, elections are about a building of a process, of a free and fair process, leading to that day. Elections are also about the freedom of assembly, freedom of dissent, freedom of the press, freedom to organize political parties and political gatherings without any intimidation. I believe that progress in Palestine can only come in the aftermath of social justice, accountability, and democracy, transparency, and strict regard to human life and human rights. Political power, whether based on family, geographical, or personal background, has damaging effects on society and should be rejected by the West and Israel, especially since Palestinians have already rejected this on a popular level. We can see that actually last week a poll came out. Almost ninety-five percent, it’s an amazing figure, eighty-five and ninety-five percent of people want the cabinet to resign, they believe there is corruption in the PA, want the restructuring [of institutions], want the whole thing. We are used to seeing ninety-five and ninety-nine percent the other way around, because elections were always rigged. But this time, people are speaking out, because, like I said, they are fed up, once and for all.
In conclusion, I would like to say that we welcome the new U.S. focus on reform. It’s very encouraging, but more needs to happen. A solid policy that Washington should insist upon should be change and reform, in which elections should be one of the basses. U.S. support, and guarantee that reform and expression, and I mean guarantee because the United States has the tools to guarantee, that freedom of expression and assembly to and for intellectuals. Also, democracy should be insisted upon. A full democratization process should really be addressed with the help of the United States, because without that, I very much doubt we can have peace in our area, which is actually the main theme of our talk here today: how can democracy lead to peace. Just to say that the majority of Palestinian society is peaceful and moderate, but they are not heard, or represented in current political structure, and democracy is the only way to empower them. By empowering this silent majority peace will come. Peace can only be viable as a result of interaction between societies, between two democratic societies, that’s the only way that we can have viable and lasting peace. Peace that depends on strong leadership by one place or by suppression of one people, will not last. That would be a recipe for disaster. Thank you.
Kenneth Weinstein: Thank you Omar, for laying out your vision so clearly. Our first commentator will be the honorable Richard Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board at the U.S. Department of Defense. Mr. Perle has been a major player in American foreign policy for nearly three decades now, dating from his days in the staff of the late and lamented senator Henry Jackson. He later served as assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration, and now from his perch as Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Richard Perle: Thank you Ken. There is really only one appropriate way to comment when one is surrounded by Omar on one side and Bernard Lewis on the other, and that is very briefly indeed. The readiness to accept the status quo, to accept and even legitimize whatever leadership happens to be in power at the moment, is very powerful. I remember well when Brezhnev was running the Soviet Union and the view was that Brezhnev was not only the leader, but also likely to be better than anyone who might replace him. Some of us remember when Nasser was in Egypt and the view was that he was the only leader with the stature in the Arab world to make peace. He didn’t make peace. He probably never would’ve made peace. And we discovered after Brezhnev and after Sadat, that there were others who could lead. There were others who could lead in a far more constructive and healthy direction.
We suffer from the same readiness to accept the status quo with respect to Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. I hope the lessons of Brezhnev and Sadat will now be applied to the prospect for change in the Palestinian Authority and specifically for the retirement for public life of Yasser Arafat, who has, as you have just heard so eloquently from Omar, made it impossible for people who are prepared for peace and reconciliation in the region to be heard. Listening to Omar, I was struck that a businessman from the West Bank, and a former Soviet dissent, a survivor of the Goolog, and now deputy Prime Minister of Israel, Nathan Sharansky, could think so much alike. Nathan has taken the view and has written and spoken eloquently to the effect, that the Israelis made a terrible mistake in the belief that they were advancing the cause of peace, when the accepted the notion that it was better to have on the Palestinian side, an authority that need not be burdened as democracies are by concepts of due process and openness. The mistake was in believing that terror could best be suppressed by people who could use the instruments of terror to suppress it and that it was somehow in Israel’s interest that Palestinian Authority should be so governed. That is now clearly a mistake not only to Omar and to many Palestinians, but to many Israelis as well. I hope we will learn that lesson too. Finally let me just say that, among the many who have conspired, unwittingly for the most part, to deprive brave men like Omar from a chance to liberate their people and outspoken leaders like Nathan Sharansky from a chance to bring a sensible policy to their people; among those who have conspired have been those in the Arab world who have made an instrument of the Palestinian people for half a century. Jenin was not leveled as we were led to believe in the earlier accounts, but it is fair to ask the question why Jenin, as a refugee camp, exists half a century later. If there is a sensible policy to be pursued, it is there should be no return to the permanence of refugee camps in the West Bank. As we think and talk about reconstruction in the aftermath of recent events, there should be room for the continuation of refugee camps. This should be understood by the Europeans, because they too have conspired against what Omar represents, by writing checks to the Palestinian Authority without ever making significant demands; a large check should be accompanied by democratic reform. So if the Europeans, and the rest of the Arab world will give people like Omar a chance to demonstrate that he is not alone among the Palestinians in his readiness, to live alongside an Israeli state in peace and to construct a demonstrate state on the territory of what will be Palestine, then I think there is hope for the future.
Weinstein: Thank you Richard for your characteristically insightful remarks. Our last speaker is going to be professor Bernard Lewis. No scholar has written consistently, and with greater insight on the Middle East and the Islamic world, than our last speaker, professor Bernard Lewis, who is the Cleveland Dodge professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. He has been a prolific scholar of Islam for more than six decades now. His latest book, What Went Wrong, which was published by the Oxford University Press in September of this past year, is an international best seller that has spent a significant amount of time on the number one slot on the New York Time’s best-seller list.
Bernard Lewis: Thank you. Before I make one or two points that I had in mind, I would like to comment very briefly on some of the points made by fellow panelists. I think the point that Omar made about discourtesy, is an extremely important one. It arises I think not from any intention to humiliate, but rather from, shall we say, certain basic cultural differences. I became very keenly aware of this after the signature of the Jordan-Israel peace treaty, when suddenly waves of Israeli tourists began wandering around in Jordan. I went on my annual visit to Jordan shortly after this and found my Jordanian friends almost without exception, complaining bitterly about the behavior of the Israeli tourists. A phrase I heard again and again and again was they behaved with the arrogance of conquers. I tried to explain to my Jordanian hosts that this wasn’t the arrogance of conquers, this was normal Israeli behavior. This is how they behave to each other all the time. Most of them didn’t believe me, and even those who did believe me, did not find this an extenuating circumstance. It is tragic that here we have side by side, probably the most courteous and the least courteous nations on earth, and this does not help in promoting goodwill.
A second point in which I must comment, is that of textbooks. Here I must disagree slightly. When I visit a country, one of the first things I do, is go to the book shops and see what is being read, or at least what is being offered for sale on the various topics that interest me. If you go to an Israeli bookshop, you will find a wide variety of books on Arab history, on Arab culture, many translations from Arabic literature into Hebrew and so on, most of which is at the same scholarly level and standard as you will find anywhere else in the world. In Arab countries I have visited, unfortunately, the reverse is true. There is almost no possibility of finding any serious discussion of Jewish or Israeli matters and laterally what one finds is warm-over remnants of literature of the Third Reich. This is a tragic fact, and I don’t think we must shirk it.
Let me come now to our main theme, that of the prospects for democracy in the Middle East. I think that this issue has been muddled and confused by prejudice. What I am referring to is a deep-seated, insidious prejudice against Arabs. A prejudice deep-rooted particularly in foreign policy circles in Europe and the United States. The assumption is never explicitly formulated but always clearly understood that Arabs are incapable of democratic institutions; that any attempt to create a democracy in an Arab country is doomed to failure and can only end in tyranny, or chaos, or a combination of the two. Therefore, the best policy, the only workable policy, is to make sure that although they are ruled by tyrants, they will be friendly tyrants rather than hostile tyrants; our tyrants, rather than someone else’s tyrants. This has been the underlying principle of foreign policy in dealing with that part of the world and it remains so for many people to the present day and as was pointed out it was also an underlying assumption of the Israeli participants in the earlier stages of the Oslo process. The underlying reasoning being, that the Palestinians don’t want peace, so let’s have a Palestinian tyrant who will impose peace on them. It is a false and dangerous assumption.
I would like to spend a moment or two in discussing it if I may. First of all, what do we mean by democracy? Democracy is a much used and much abused word; it means different things in different times in different places. So let me take a very simple definition that offered by professor Huntington, not in connection with The Clash of Civilizations, as it is in a different book in a different context. When he says you can call a country a democracy is when it has changed its government twice by elections. This is a good, practical, working definition. No political science, no philosophy; its practical and simple, and I think, very effective. The second change is important. It sometimes happens that on either on principle or through inadvertence, the government in power allows itself to be voted out. What has usually happened is that the new lot that come in make damn sure that they are going to leave by the same route. The second change is important: Huntington is absolutely right on that. In the region as a whole, elections do not normally change governments; governments change elections. These are usually of a celebratory character; they correspond not to an American election but to an American inauguration or in other words, a formal ritual recognition of a decision that has already been achieved by other methods. It has long been so, but does it have to be so? Let me try very briefly to deal with two questions: why is it so? And must it remain so?
Why is it so? I think there are several reasons. Let us bear in mind that this is not a society of despotic or autocratic traditions. The traditional Middle Eastern state, before the impact of Westernization, was certainly authoritarian, but it was in no sense dictatorial. The concept of authority was contractual and consensual and remains so even in practice to no considerable extent. It was a concept of government under law, divine law which could not be changed, but nevertheless, a law to which the Sultan no less under the humblest of his subjects was bound. I could give many other illustrations as well. You cannot call it democratic now in that modern sense of the word. They didn’t hold elections or elect parliaments. But it was a responsible government, a government under law, a government under certain legal constraints.
Then it changed for several reasons, and we like to think that the process of reform and modernization was a beneficial one. And so it was in many respects. But in one important respect, it had devastatingly bad effects. That is to say by vastly increasing the power of government and weakening or eliminating most of the restricting factors that had previously limited the power of the government. A British observer at the time put it very nicely. He contrasted what he called the old nobility with the tradition order and the new nobility created by the reforms and the process of reform. He said that old nobility lived on their states; the state is the estate of the new nobility. This is very much the situation in most of the dictatorial regimes including, perhaps more than most others, the Palestinian Authority. A second negative factor was the ongoing struggle over the Middle East by outside powers. The traditional beginning of the modern history of the Middle East according to most historians, was the end of the 18th century, when a small French expeditionary force, commanded by a young general called Napoleon Bonaparte, was able to conquer, occupy and rule Egypt without the slightest difficulty. One of the heartlands of the Islamic world occupied in this way was a terrible shock. The second shock was a few years later, the departure of general Bonaparte and his army, was accomplished not by the Egyptians, nor by the Turks, but by a small squadron of the royal navy, commanded by a young admiral called Horatio Nelson. A lesson was clear; a European power can do what it chooses in the Middle East and only another European power can get them out. This set the pattern for something like two centuries.
In the period since the establishment of the Palestine mandate, of the Jewish settlement, of the growth of what eventually became the state of Israel, opponents of the Jews and their legal patrons, the British, found support elsewhere. In the 1930s and the early 1940s, it was the Nazis. The Third Reich was the main anti-Western force, and therefore seemed to be the best way of opposing the Jews and the British. That ended with the collapse of the Third Reich, and there was a period of, shall we say, hiatus, after which, a new patron emerged, the Soviet Union, which inherited the place of the Third Reich as the patron of Anti-Western forces, whatever they might be and against which ever target they might be directed. That went on for some time. Then, the Soviet Union also collapsed and there was a vacancy. Some had the idea that the new Europe might fill the place vacated, previously held by the Nazis and the Soviets as the principle instrument of Anti-Western policy, which means by this time primarily America. There have been people in Europe who have responded to this, who rather like the idea, but fortunately, in the first place they have not been able to command a majority even in Europe. In the second place, even where they have the will, they lack the power, which brings us back to the Middle Eastern scene.
Here I think it is very important to try to overcome this vicious prejudice, which is particularly strongly expressed in Europe nowadays. Let me illustrate it with some examples. Sabra and Shatila, everyone knows that the massacre was actually carried out by a Lebanese militia, but nobody has ever suggested any kind of prosecution of them or their leaders, the assumption being, that Sharon, whatever his degree of responsibility, had let loose a pack of dogs on them, not human beings. Earlier in the same year in Hama, the Syrian dictator was responsible for the slaughter of tens of thousands of his people. Not a dog barked. There wasn’t even an indictment in Belgium. This did not stop two American presidents and I forget how many secretaries of state from paying court to Hafiz Al-Asad and Monsieur Chirac from walking a mile in his funeral cortège. This is, I think, a indication of a profound disrespect for the Arabs, their culture, their history, and their capacities, and a profound lack of concern for their well-being and for their future, the basic assumption being as I said before, they are incapable of anything better, they will be ruled by villains so let’s make sure they are our villains. This, I think and I believe very strongly, is a false and dangerous assumption and it is time to getaway from it.
Weinstein: Thank you professor Lewis. We now have time for questions from the audience. We have microphones over there, so please stand up and identify yourself when asking questions. Thank you.
Bob Guzzardi: First of all, thank you very much for your remarks. I think we see a little bit of light. My question is with regard to the press. I have watched a lot of TV, read a lot of things, and I have never heard about you or any other Palestinian like you. I am a business myself, so I think I probably understand a little bit about how you think. We haven’t heard about you on C-SPAN, CNN, BCC, ABC, any of the news organizations. What is the