Thursday, January 06, 2005

Sharansky for Prime Minister

It was a something of a shock in 2003 when the Jerusalem Post endorsed Natan Sharansky, then head of the Yisrael B'Aliyah party, for Prime Minister, but it was the right call.

While President Bush's pro-democracy statements are difficult to take seriously because of the gross incompetence of his administration's handling of Iraq, Natan Sharansky's are tried and true. And his critique of Oslo and Israel's attitude toward the Palestinians, restated in Thursday's Ha'aretz, are very close to my own.

In 2001, when I was finishing out my four years at Vassar College, I had a weekly column in the school newspaper. What I never liked about Oslo was exactly what Sharansky disliked about it; Yasir Arafat was going to be the Palestinian leader. But it wasn't only because Arafat had so much blood on his hands. It was because he was a despot, and because the Palestinian Authority would become a dictatorship under his rule. And when I asked an Israeli high up in the Consulate about what Israel was doing to ensure that the Palestinians developed a democracy, I got the standard answer. Israel really didn't care, I was told. It's up to them how they run their nation. Israel just wanted to be rid of them.

This made me unhappy, because I knew deep down that even if the Oslo process produced an agreement, it was not likely to endure for long if it was a cold peace, a peace where Israelis and Palestinians did not care about what happened to the other. Israel cannot afford a despotic Palestine, and cannot afford to have with the Palestinians what they have with the Egyptians.

So when I got back to Vassar (I had asked the question during an information session at the National Model United Nations conference, where I was participating as a teaching assistant/assistant coach for Vassar's team), I wrote a column about it. The column was also a plug for a conference at Vassar that I helped put together.

Here's the column, from the April 27, 2001 edition of Vassar's Miscellany News (with minor copy edits):

On Tuesday, April 24, in Rocky 300, there will be a panel on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that will include prominent, non-governmental affiliated panelists from both sides. I urge all of you to come. As one of the organizers of the panel, I had, like others, envisioned it as an educational endeavor. But after hearing both Israeli and Jordanian foreign officials speak on the peace process at the National Model United Nations conference down in New York City this week, I don't think the combination of professors, writers, and clergy that we will have with us this week could do worse than the high-ranking public servants that I observed and questioned this week.

How bad was it? Well, I'll characterize my feelings by saying that my previous enthusiasm for the peace process has officially finished dying a slow and painful death.

The Israeli representative gave his talk, and it was pretty much what I expected. No negotiation until Arafat puts a stop to Palestinian violence, blah, blah, blah. I asked him this question: "Sir, people say that Arafat has become very marginalized lately, and this is at least in part because he runs the Palestinian National Authority as a corrupt dictatorship. What is Israel doing, and what is being done within the peace process context, to ensure that the Palestinians have at least some small chance to develop a democracy?" His answer startled me.

"Well," he said, "We're just interested in making peace. We don't want to impede on the sovereignty of a new Palestinian state. And with regard to the Arab world, we can't wait for democracy. We're going to negotiate with whomever is in charge."

Sovereignty? The Israelis are worried about Palestinian sovereignty? A border state is about to be created from the old territories, and the Israelis don't care what kind of government it has? This is your "cold" peace, which is not peace at all. This is what happens when negotiations sink to the lowest common denominator and peace becomes a euphemism for the much lesser accomplishment of ceasing hostilities. It's like saying that if Mrs. Smith places Timmy and Tommy at opposite ends of the class so that they can't fight, it means that they'll become friends and won't fight after school. Separation is no permanent solution. At the very best, it could be part of an overall solution to eventually unite both peoples if it was accompanied by educational and infrastructural mandates to eliminate the hate that exists toward Jews and Israel in the Palestinian and Arab worlds and strengthen the programs that exist in Israeli schools. But it's clear that right now, neither side is thinking along those lines.

While the Israeli diplomat highlighted the absence of long-term thinking among Israeli peacemakers, the Jordanian diplomat, who was educated in the West like many members of the Arab aristocracy, highlighted the fundamental problem that results when elites fail to remember that foreign policy is supposed to be conducted on behalf of their peoples, rather than on behalf of themselves. There were two things he said that were particularly telling. The first prompted my question which, in turn, prompted the second. In a short speech, the Jordanian nobly announced that when he had visited Israel about 20 years ago, he had been startled by the country's development and had become convinced that Israel was in the Middle East to stay.

I raised my hand. "Sir," I said, "I can't tell you how happy I am that you've personally decided to recognize Israel as a geographic reality. Unfortunately, the refugees tend to disagree with you. Many of them see Israel as the Zionist enemy, and yet, they want to return and live there, citing UN Resolution 194, which predicates the right of return on the desire to live in peace. Why should the Israeli government accept them?"

"Well," he said, "I think this is an issue that the Israeli public is afraid of, but you know, government inevitably progresses and eventually leaders have to make decisions and pull the people along with them. I think that this is eventually what will happen with the Israeli government. Barak was an example of that."

In truth, he wasn't too far off the mark. The problem was that he was describing the way Arab leaders traditionally do business. Foreign policy is conducted by the people at the top with no input from the population themselves. It is then handed to the people. Barak was an example of that; he acted like an Arab leader rather than as a representative of a democracy when he tried to craft an agreement with Arafat at Camp David without public or parliamentary support. He was, in a manner of speaking, guilty of what Israel and the United States often accuse Arafat of doing - not preparing his people for peace. Like Arab leaders, he did little internally to secure the blessing of his population before he put most of the sacred cows of the Jewish people on the table. For this, he lost his job.

The peace process has turned into a race to the bottom; in the frenzy to end violence for a while, both sides have become blind to the larger picture. If the Israelis think democracy in the Arab world is not an essential element of peace, they are setting themselves up for more strife and suffering in the future. And as long as Arab leaders persist in their belief that peace can be made for those who desire no such thing, they will find themselves at continued odds with the State of Israel. Until both sides state recognizing the conflict as something mroe than an issue of ceasing hostilities, peace will not be anywhere near the horizon.

1 Comments:

At 4:56 PM, Blogger Irina Tsukerman said...

Whereas I agree that it's important for Palestinians to have democracy in order to make peace with Israel, it's not going to be quite so easy. In other words, who the Palestinians choose to be their leader may not be the best person to negotiate for peace. Frankly, I'm very skeptical about Sharansky's (or anyone else's) ability to change the situation at this point. They all talk the talk, but can they walk the walk???

 

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