Hudson Institute Symposium

Palestine’s Emerging Democratic Alternative

The only alternative to the continuing violence in the Middle East is the establishment of a Palestinian regime that is truly committed to democracy and peace.

On June 6, the Hudson Institute hosted three distinguished speakers, Omar Ibrahim Karsou, Richard Perle, and professor Bernard Lewis, for a panel discussion entitled “An Emerging Palestinian Alternative: Can Peace be Achieved Through Democracy?” Following is an edited transcript of the speakers’ remarks. The panel was moderated by Kenneth Weinstein, vice president and director of Hudson Institute’s Washington, D.C. office.

Omar Ibrahim Karsou is a West Bank businessman and human rights activist who hales from Nablus. He is a leading figure in Democracy in Palestine, a new group of West Bank and Gaza intellectuals, businessmen, and members of the Palestinian legislature working for real and lasting democracy for Palestinian society.

Richard Perle is chairman of the Defense Policy Board at the U.S. Department of Defense, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a trustee of the Hudson Institute.

Bernard Lewis 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 last year, is an international bestseller.

Kenneth Weinstein: 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, reestablishing 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.

Omar Karsou: I can say that this is the first time I have experienced 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.

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. Like all Palestinians, I too would like to see a homeland for my people, and would like to work toward that. Just like many thousands of Palestinians, I know, understand, and accept that this homeland will have to be next to the state of Israel, and that its only chance of survival would come through economic and political harmony with both Israel and Jordan. Unfortunately, many people in the West equate the Palestinian struggle with the events of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, the hijackings in the 1970s and ’80s, and the suicide bombings of the past few months. This [violence] is not our cause; this is not what we represent. Unfortunately, moderate and peaceful Palestinians have been silenced for many years, first by Israeli occupation, and then by the post-Oslo repression of the Palestinian Authority. The polls consistently show that no less than 50 percent of Palestinians support neither Hamas, Islamic Jihad, nor the Palestinian Authority (PA). That is a majority. And that is what we call the silent majority, or, more accurately, the silenced majority. These are the people whom we are counting on to lead our homeland to becoming a viable, democratic country. Some people ask why the polls show that a majority of Palestinians support suicide bombings. There are clear answers to this. One is that Palestinians really do not know the reality of what is going on outside. Our media are one-sided; we do not get to hear the full story. What we see is the enemy closing in, but we are not allowed to see the enemy within. Another reason is that Israeli repression and humiliation on a daily basis are very real to the Palestinians. This is a fact of life with which we have been living for no less than fifty-five years. Roadblocks, incursions, and closures are a daily reality for us. Since 1967, Israel’s main policy toward the Palestinians has been one of control, subjugation, and suppression of a potential uprising. When the uprising finally came twenty years later in 1987, Israel had to resort to suppression by proxy, bringing in other oppressors to do the dirty work of keeping the Palestinian population in line. The late [Israeli] prime minister [Yitzhak] Rabin noted that Arafat could deal with the Palestinians without worrying about the Israeli Supreme Court, while he [Rabin] would have had to deal with them.

Israel has dealt with only two kinds of Palestinians: the ultra-liberationists—the PLO type—those who wanted everything, and the Hamas, the extremists. They have not given the middle-of-the-road moderates a chance to rise. Israel has not encouraged the development of civil society in the Palestinian territories during the occupation. People often ask me about [the anti-Israel passages in Palestinian school] 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? Now, what do we Palestinians want? We want freedom, of course, but unfortunately, freedom has been explained to us, over and over again, as freedom merely from occupation. Yet as we all know, there is more to freedom than that. Freedom also has to do with free speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom to have a business enterprise, freedom to travel, and the like. Unfortunately, the Palestinian-controlled media portray only this [one] type of freedom [the end of occupation].

What we don’t want is for our children to be killed. I often hear that Palestinians, or Palestinian women, happily send their children out to be killed. We want our children to live in peace next to other people’s children. We are human beings just like anyone else.

We are also extremely fed up with oppression. We are bewildered that we Palestinians—who pride ourselves on being a highly educated people with many intellectuals and scholars—are suppressed throughout the Arab world. Few of them are allowed to come back, and then only if they do not dissent with the leadership. We have helped build many Arab countries, but we are not being allowed to build our own, because we have been given a leadership that is not representative. We want, of course, statehood, independence, and 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 violence started right after the failure of the peace process. Before then, at least on a daily basis, 150,000 Palestinians would cross to Israel to work, conduct business, or do whatever they wanted to do, on a single day, for many years. Any given day that means that, potentially, 150,000 suicide bombers [were entering Israel], according to what we hear in the media. The most recent round of violence started only after the fall of the peace process, the collapse of Camp David. When Camp David collapsed, most Palestinians lost hope. We had been willing to put up with the current leadership, hoping for better days to come, because we thought that after the conclusion of the peace treaty with Israel, Palestine would be our state and we could make it the way we wanted it to be. We were told that Palestine would be a democratic state with free and fair elections. 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 twenty-year-old man standing there with an army uniform who doesn’t speak your language and humiliates you every day. But we are not told that that twenty-year-old man is just as frustrated with the situation as we are. That truth is what we are trying to relate to our people: that both sides want to end this senseless violence. Like many other Palestinians, I believe that real negotiations with Israel can only be fruitful if Palestine is allowed to create a more legitimate government that represents the masses, the largely silenced peace camp in Palestinian society today. This will require real reform and elections. But elections are about much more than just election day. They involve building a free and fair process leading up to that day. They are also about freedoms of assembly, dissent, the press, and organizing political parties and political gatherings without any intimidation. I believe that progress in Palestine can only come through the establishment of social justice, government accountability, democracy, transparency, and strict regard for human life and human rights. Political power 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. Last week a poll came out, in which almost 95 percent of the people polled said they wanted the cabinet to resign. They believe there is corruption in the PA, and they want Palestinian political institutions restructured. People are speaking out because they are absolutely fed up with the situation.

That is why we welcome the new U.S. focus on reform. It is very encouraging, but more needs to happen. Washington should insist on change and reform, in which elections should be one of the bases. The United States should support and guarantee freedom of expression and assembly for Palestine’s intellectuals, and should insist on the establishment of democracy. Without a full democratization process carried out with the help of the United States, I very much doubt that we can have peace in our area. The majority of Palestinian society is peaceful and moderate, but they are not heard or represented in the current political structure, and democracy is the only way to empower them. Viable and lasting peace can only come as a result of interaction between democratic societies. Peace that depends on suppression of one side or the other will not last.

Richard Perle: 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. When Brezhnev was running the Soviet Union, the view was that Brezhnev was not only the leader but also likely to be better than anyone who might replace him. When Nasser was in Egypt, the view was that he was the only leader with the stature in the Arab world to make peace. He didn’t make peace, and he probably never would have made peace. We discovered, after Brezhnev and after Nasser, that there were others who could lead in a far more constructive and healthy direction.

Today we suffer from the same readiness to accept the status quo with respect to Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. I hope that the lessons of Brezhnev and Sadat will now be applied to the prospect for change in the Palestinian Authority and specifically for the retirement from public life of Yasser Arafat. The Palestinian leader, as you have just heard so eloquently from Omar, has 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 he—a businessman from the West Bank—and Nathan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissent, a survivor of the Gulag, and now deputy prime minister of Israel, could think so much alike. Nathan has written and spoken eloquently to the effect that the Israelis made a terrible mistake in believing that they were advancing the cause of peace when they accepted the notion that it was better to have on the Palestinian side an authority that would not be burdened, as democracies are, by requirements for due process and openness. The mistake was in believing that the more effective way to suppress terror would be to hand the reins of power to people who could use the instruments of terror to suppress it, and that it was in Israel’s interest for Palestine to be so governed. It is now clear to many Palestinians and Israelis that this was a mistake. It is also important to note 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 bringing a sensible policy to their people 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 by the early press accounts, but it is fair to ask the question of why Jenin, as a refugee camp, exists half a century after its founding. If there is a sensible policy to be pursued, it is that there should be no room for the continuation of refugee camps. The Europeans must also understand this, because they too have conspired against peace by writing checks to the Palestinian Authority without ever making significant demands. A large check should be accompanied by an insistence on democratic reform. There is hope for the future if Europe and 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 democratic state on the territory that will be allotted to Palestine.

Bernard Lewis: 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 signing 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 repeatedly was that they behaved with the arrogance of conquerors. I tried to explain to my Jordanian hosts that this was not the arrogance of conquerors, this was normal Israeli behavior. It is how they behave toward one another 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 we have here, side by side, probably the most courteous and the least courteous nations on earth. This does not help in promoting goodwill.

A second subject on 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 bookshops 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 and 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 what one finds is warmed-over remnants of the literature of the Third Reich. This is a tragic fact, and I think that we must not shirk it.

Let me come now to our main theme, 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 European and U.S. foreign policy circles. 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, chaos, or a combination of the two. Therefore, the only workable policy is to make sure that although they are ruled by tyrants, they will be friendly tyrants rather than hostile ones—our tyrants rather than someone else’s. This has been the underlying principle of Western foreign policy in dealing with that part of the world, and it remains so for many people to the present day. 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 despot who will impose peace on them. It is a false and dangerous assumption.

I would like to spend a moment or two 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. Let me take a very simple definition, that offered by Prof. Samuel Huntington, not in connection with The Clash of Civilizations, as it is in a different book in a different context. He says that you can call a country a democracy when it has changed its government twice by elections. This is a good, practical, working definition. No political science, no philosophy; it is practical and simple and, I think, very effective. The second change [of government] is important. It sometimes happens that either on principle or through inadvertence, the government in power allows itself to be voted out. What usually happens then is that the new lot that come in make damn sure that they are not going to leave by the same route. In the Middle East, elections do not normally change governments; governments change elections.

I think there are several reasons why this occurs. Let us bear in mind that the Middle East is not a place 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 today, to a considerable extent. It was a concept of government under law, divine law, which could not be changed and to which the Sultan no less under the humblest of his subjects was bound. You could not call it democratic in the modern sense of the word; they didn’t hold elections or elect parliaments. But it was a responsible government, a government under law, 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: it vastly increased the power of government and weakened or eliminated most of the restricting factors that had previously limited that power. A British observer at the time put it very nicely. He contrasted what he called the old nobility and traditional order with the new nobility created by reforms and the process of reform. He said that the old nobility lived on their estates, but the state is the estate of the new nobility. This is very much the situation in most dictatorial regimes, including, perhaps more than most others, the Palestinian Authority. A second negative factor was the ongoing struggle over the Middle East among outside powers. The traditional beginning of the modern history of the Middle East, according to most historians, was the end of the eighteenth century, when a small French expeditionary force commanded by a young general named Napoleon Bonaparte was able to conquer, occupy, and rule Egypt without the slightest difficulty. For one of the heartlands of the Islamic world to be occupied in this way was a terrible shock. The second shock came a few years later when 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 British Royal Navy, commanded by a young admiral named Horatio Nelson. The lesson was clear: a European power can do what it chooses in the Middle East, and only another European power can get the conquerors out. This set the pattern for something like two centuries.

In the period since the establishment of the Palestine mandate—of what eventually became the state of Israel—opponents of the Jews and their British patrons found support elsewhere, beginning with the Nazis. That ended with the collapse of the Third Reich, and there was a period of hiatus, after which a new patron emerged, the Soviet Union. 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 vacancy as the principle instrument of anti-Western policy, which by this time meant 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 East today.

I think that it is very important to try to overcome this vicious prejudice, which is expressed particularly strongly in Europe nowadays. Let me illustrate it with some examples. The massacre at Sabra and Shatila, everyone knows, 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 [current Israeli prime minister Ariel] Sharon, whatever his degree of responsibility, had let loose a pack of dogs on the Palestinians there. Earlier that 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 numerous secretaries of state from paying court to Hafiz Al-Asad or [French prime minister Jacques] Chirac from walking a mile in his funeral cortège. This is, I think, an indication of a profound disrespect for the Arabs, their culture, their history, and their capacities, and a profound lack of concern for their wellbeing and their future. The basic assumption, as I said before, is that they are incapable of anything better and will inevitably be ruled by villains, so let’s just make sure they are our villains. I believe very strongly that this is a false and dangerous assumption, and it is time to get away from it.