Is the Problem with Arafat that He's a Dictator?





Ms. Klinghoffer is senior associate scholar at the Political Science department at Rutgers University, Camden, and the author of Vietnam, Jews and the Middle East.

"I am not saying Arafat is the best man, no," Mr. Mubarak said."But we have to use Arafat in this present situation. Arafat would be much more flexible than before after this period of the past year. I think we have to support him for the time being," he said, adding"then, after that, maybe after one year he may appoint some other" Palestinian leader"to take over" while assuming a more ceremonial position (NYT June 4, 2002)". The next day the lead editorial of the New York Times praised Mubarak's pragmatism.

A few weeks ago I wrote an article noting the similar failure of the peace processes to change the spots of Palestinian and Colombian revolutionary leopards. Here in a nutshell is not only the reason the peace process failed but also the answer to"why are the Arabs so enraged?" Here is an Egyptian president suggesting that Arafat should control the fate of his Palestinian brethren not because of his strength but because of his weakness. Moreover, this failed leader should be the one to decide who will succeed him. Why? Because the Palestinians cannot be trusted to elect their own leaders!

There is nothing surprising in Mubarak's advocacy of authoritarianism or succession by appointment. That is the way he himself got to be permanent president. Nor is there anything unusual in his attempt to convince Washington that the Arab people are naturally too belligerent to be trusted to elect a moderate leader. It has worked before. That is how he and his fellow"moderates" deflected even mild American urgings to democratize, and that is how he and his fellow Arab" coalition members" convinced the first Bush administration that a weakened Saddam is the best man to control Iraq. Indeed, that is how Mubarak convinced the US to continue to finance his regime (to the tune of over 2 billion dollars a year) while he encourages the dissemination of the most fanatic anti-Western and anti-Semitic propaganda. It is not difficult to discern the motivation of Mubarak and his fellow Arab leaders. Democratization in the Arab world would undermine their legitimacy.

It is more instructive to understand the reason proponents of the peace process bought into this reasoning. As Dan Ephron notes in his May 31 New Republic article,"Trials and Error," the architects of the Arab-Israeli peace process not only did not tie democratization to the process but considered peace and Palestinian democracy to be mutually exclusive."One month after signing the accord in Washington, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin explained to critics that Arafat would be better suited than Israel to fight terrorists because he was unencumbered by the props of democracy--human rights groups, the supreme court, and `all kinds of bleeding-heart liberals.'" Mubarak could not have said it better. Note that when Rabin thought of democracy, he thought about it in terms of rights, not in terms of accountability."There was a feeling that if Israel helped make Arafat into a strong leader--a dictator, really--that he could deliver on peace and security," explains Nathan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident and an early opponent of the Oslo accords."I said from the start that it would backfire." Sharansky adds:"A democratic Palestinian leader will try to deliver peace in order to win the support of his people. A dictator, by contrast, will make Israel its perennial enemy to deflect attention from his own corruption. Dictators need enemies to rally their people. That was always the case in the Soviet Union. Dictators don't make peace." Sharansky thinks in terms of accountability not rights.

There is nothing novel in Sharansky's analysis. Even the Greeks understood as much. In Thucydides' classic Melian Dialogue the Melians refused the Athenian request to address the people directly. The Athenian representatives remarked:"So we are not to speak before the people, no doubt in case the mass of the people should hear once and for all and without interruption an argument from us which is both persuasive and incontrovertible, and should be led astray. This, we realize, is your motive in bringing us to speak before the few." The pragmatic people would have understood that Melos was no match for Athens just as they would have understood that Afghanistan was no match for the US. It was the ideological few who choose a suicidal war. Had the people been belligerent, Democracies would have been fighting each other while the opposite is obviously true. The only reason that Serbia is well on its way to becoming a respectable member of the world community, while Iraq remains an international pariah, is that the Serbs had an opportunity to throw the rascal out. Even more instructive is to note that, given the opportunity the Kosovars also prefer moderate Rugova (the man who was supposed to have lost credibility by negotiating with Milosevic on the brink of the NATO bombing) to the radical KLA. It is not democracy that breeds pragmatism; it is the electorate that does. As a rule, elections are won by the pragmatic center. That is the reason the ideological few focus on minority rights rather than accountability to the majority. Therefore, the more accountable the ruling elite is to the moderate center, the more a peace process can be expected to succeed.

Indeed, it is possible to argue that it was not fear of assassination, but fear of accountability, that was at least partially responsible for the failure of the Barak/Clinton initiative. On June 24, 2001 an Egyptian newspaper published the last interview with Arafat's then heir presumptive, Faysal Al-Husseiny prior to his untimely death from a heart attack. After Husseiny explained that the appropriate way to treat the Oslo accords was as a Trojan horse, the reporter said:"But the horse began to ignore criticism from the people, both from those who supported Oslo and those who opposed it. [it ignored] criticism about the true democracy that should lead the horse and about the horse's corruption." Husseiny responded:"Your words remind me of the famous meeting we had with all the Palestinian factions three years following Arafat and the PLO's return to Gaza . . . the debate revolved around the same issues you are raising - i.e., democracy, corruption, etc. In that meeting - and those who attended are still alive and can attest to it - I asked to speak. I told everyone: three years ago I said `climb into the horse' and everyone entered into the horse and the horse entered into the walled in [area]. Now, the time has come for us to say: `come out of the horse and start working.' Don't stay inside the horse and don't waste energy while you are inside the horse arguing whether this is a good horse or not. Look, it is thanks to this horse that you were able to get into the walled-in city. So come down out of the horse and start working for the goal for which you entered the horse to begin with. In my opinion, the Intifada itself is the coming our of the horse. Rather than getting into old arguments . . . our slogan from now on should be `the Intifada is always right . . ."

A careful reading of Husseiny reveals that violence against Israel was the PLO ruling elite's response to calls for internal reform. In each case the Israeli electorate responded by defeating the leaders who brought violence instead of peace and replacing them with leaders trusted to meet violence with violence. After all, Israel was not the weak side in this conflict. In 1996 it elected Netanyahu and in 2000 Sharon. Recently, the Colombian electorate responded to the ongoing FARC terrorism by electing 'hard liner' Uribe.

Tragically, the international community not only did not punish the Palestinian elite by expelling it from the international halls of power, but it took extraordinary steps to insulate it economically from the Palestinian population. In most countries, the ruling elite's need for tax revenues ensures its interest in the economic well-being of the people and may even convince it to share power. That was the basis of the Magna Carta, and that was the basis of the American battle cry"no taxation without representation." That is the reason why in liberal democracies, spending bills have to originate in the lower houses of Parliaments. That is also the reason why the European Union suffers from 'democratic deficit.' For it is the European Commission, the appointed bureaucratic organ, not the elected European parliament, that initiates legislative action including spending bills. Still, at least the money at the disposal of the European Commission is internally generated. The better the economy, the more money the Commission has to spend.

The same is not true either in the Palestinian territories or in the despeje. The Palestinian people not only do not have any constitutional means to get rid of Arafat and his cronies. Their Parliament does not control his spending. AND the Palestinian Authority's income is not internally generated. The European Union pays 10 million dollars monthly for the salaries of municipal workers, police and security organizations. The ruling elite has also at its disposal significant funds contributed by the United States, the United Nations, Arab states and various charities. The same is true about the Colombians except that FARC's income is derived from the sale of narcotics. Hence, both the PLO and FARC are able to embark with impunity on military adventures with total disregard for the effect their actions have on the economies under their control. The unemployment in the territories has reached 40% but the PLO budget is unaffected. The Colombian despeje are turning into refugees but the drug money continues to fill FARC's coffers. In short, the people are nothing more than the hostages of highly ideological and unaccountable ruling elites.

These ideologues do not concern themselves with the welfare of living, breathing individuals but with the rights of groups represented by a self appointed elite unhampered by the great unwashed. In his perceptive forthcoming Orbis article entitled"Liberal Democracy vs. Transnational Progressivism: The Future of Ideological Civil War Within the West," John Fonte writes: For transnational progressives"the key political unit is not the individual citizen who forms voluntary associations and works with fellow citizens regardless of race, sex, or national origin, but the ascriptive group (racial, ethnic, or gender) into which one is born." The European Union, argues Fonte, is a stronghold of transnational progressivism. It is therefore a small wonder it suffers from a democratic deficit. These transnational progressives care little about the plight of individual Palestinians, or individual Colombians, but they care deeply about the right of the"Palestinian and Colombian peoples" as a whole. They do not see Arafat as the head of the Palestinian residents of the West Banks and Gaza but as the representative of the Palestinian nation. Nor do they see FARC commander, Marulanda, as the head of the residents of the despeje but as the head of revolutionary Colombia.

As it was Europeans, the leaders of transnationalist progressivism (Peres called on Israelis to take up an 'ultranational' identity) who designed the peace processes, it follows that the system they designed not only fails to moderate the revolutionaries but further enhances the ability to achieve their goals by providing them with a secure physical base and a hapless population. Indeed, the divergence between American and European attitude towards terrorism, I noted in my previous article, reflects divergence between liberal democrats and transnational progressives.

Be that as it may, a peace process will only moderate belligerent elites when the moderate center is given significant leverage over them. Hence, an electoral democracy in which the representatives of the people control the purse strings is not a luxury but an essential requirement for the achievement of peace.

Sharansky is right. The international community should help Palestinians develop democratic institutions before Israel embarks on new peace talks. As the most articulate Palestinian spokesperson, Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, wrote in February 16, 2002 article" Palestinian Elections: Why, When, Where, Who?" (www.miftah.org):"As an internal requirement for the reinforcement of democracy and democratic practice, as well as for strengthening the internal front, empowering and guiding decision-making process, carrying out the necessary institutional and economic reform, sustaining a genuine separation of powers, and ensuring both efficiency and accountability in the public sector, the Palestinian people on the whole have been demanding elections for a long time."

It is in the interest of all peace loving people to support their demand. Moreover, to further empower the Palestinian people all international financial aid should be directed towards long-term investment in the economic infrastructure of the territories. Ongoing governmental expenditures should be internally generated. It is time to place the Palestinian people in charge of their own fate.


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