Oct 31 2006

Bread or Democracy

Published by at 12:05 pm under Blogs,Palestinian politics

Daoud Kuttab International Herald Tribune


Former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, finding himself in a bind during sensitive negotiations with the Palestinians in 1996, put forth a new condition: Israel – reputed to be “the only democracy in the Middle East” – would trade land for peace only when the Palestinians practiced real democracy.

Although this demand was a transparent ploy to avoid returning Palestinian lands, it was nevertheless music to the ears of Palestinian democrats.

Now, all this talk of democracy even prior to Palestinian independence is turning sour as our democratic leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is saying publicly that bread is more important than democracy.

While democracy is a system of power sharing and rule of the people by the people, without true sovereignty it is meaningless. Without control over our borders, roads, airwaves, water aquifers and customs fees, there is no democracy; one can’t call a government living under occupation a democracy.

The American Revolution’s slogan “no taxation without representation” confirms the simple reality that a representative democracy can’t coexist under non-representative military rule.

The Oslo Accords – the Palestinian-Israeli Memorandum of Understanding – signed on the White House lawn in 1993 promised Palestinians a path toward sovereignty. An elected Palestinian parliament and presidency was expected to last for a five-year transitional period after which Palestinians anticipated that a sovereign independent state would be established.

The assassination of premier Yitzhak Rabin 11 years ago this week by a radical Jewish militant, plus a spate of suicide bombings by Palestinian Islamic militants, succeeded in torpedoing the Oslo process.

When Republican US President George W. Bush looked at the Middle East – especially in the wake of 9/11 – he found in the democratic ploy an area of shared ideology with Israel’s right-wing politicians, including Ariel Sharon, Netanyahu and Natan Sharansky – the former Soviet Jewish dissident.

THE DIE was cast. For Americans to sympathize with the Palestinian and Arab aspirations in general, democracy would have to be the prerequisite that would facilitate independence and our own pursuit of happiness. For Palestinians, adopting democracy was natural, albeit that they were still under occupation.

Not that White House really meant that it would actually respect the will of the people. Washington decided, without the peoples of the region knowing it, that a proviso would be be attached to this call for democracy: Rule of the people by the people couldn’t include popularly elected Islamists.

After the death of PLO leader Yasser Arafat, elections provided a successful and acceptable mechanism to give legitimacy to a new president.

In true democratic fashion, a newly elected civilian president of a stateless Palestine began to practice his role, and in true democratic fashion called for parliamentary elections.

Elections which take place in a country under foreign occupation cannot and should not be considered genuinely free. Nevertheless, absent progress on the peace process and with the international community largely in agreement that Palestinians should negotiate (and not fight) their way out of occupation, Palestinians put themselves in a real bind. Despite having implemented the American credo of democracy, Palestinians find themselves worse off than when the autocratic Arafat was in power.

Abbas, whom the Israelis didn’t negotiate with in the crucial year between his election and Hamas’s victory, is now trying to grapple with two opposites. He needs to decide whether to accept the electoral choice of his people – Hamas – or allow them to suffer depravation and starvation due to sanctions against the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. Abbas seems to have opted for dealing with the deprivation.

He is tempted to fire the elected government (even using undemocratic methods) and replacing it with one that is acceptable to the EU, US and the Israelis in order to overcome the Palestinians’ dire economic situation.

Many are cursing the day that they embraced the hope of democracy.

Palestinians who belong to the liberal democratic camp are asking themselves: How could we have been so stupid as to believe that we could have democracy before we gained sovereignty? They are rethinking their attitude toward Arafat. Perhaps he was right when he belittled democracy before liberation, some are arguing today. Choosing between bread and democracy is not a fair choice.

Palestinians of all strata are being asked to make an impossible choice. Should undemocratic means be used to dismiss the Hamas-led parliament and government just because it is not to the liking of the leaders of Israel, America and Europe, and so that the aid spigot for PA salaries will be opened and the customs duties collected by Israel will be released?

Alternatively, can Palestinians dream that the democratic process will be held as the supreme value irrespective of whomever the people chose? And will they have the patience to allow this choice to be changed only in the fullness of time?

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