More articles by
Yacov Ben Efrat
Imposing Democracy, Reaping Chaos
HE New Middle East was the title of a book by Shimon Peres, today Deputy Prime Minister to Ariel Sharon. And now we have the “democratic Middle East,” ballyhooed by none other than US President George W. Bush. Each of these slogans is the product of the period in which it was coined. Peres’s “New Middle East” reflected the peace agreements with the PLO (1993) and Jordan (1994), which were to usher in a new reality, based on regional economic cooperation. Poverty would be overcome. There would be far-reaching political and social change, which would ensure productive relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors. From all the fanfare, however, came exactly nothing. For most Palestinians, the Oslo Accords brought unemployment, hunger and corruption. In Israel, they went hand-in-hand with the globalization of capital. They enriched the few families that dominate Israel’s economy, while creating unprecedented poverty among the weaker classes.
After the path of peace petered out, it was time for the opposite. What Peres failed to do by persuasion, Bush attempts by invasion. His basic assumption is that Arabs understand only force. Thus democracy advances by means of weapons, threats, extortion and pressure. It is an avalanche of democracy, burying Arab dictatorships. In Iraq, the new constitution has won a majority; elections are at hand. In Lebanon, the orange revolution has succeeded beyond all expectation; Syria’s army has pulled out of there after thirty years. In the Palestinian Authority (PA), Abu Mazen – America’s favorite – is now the elected president and has promised far-reaching reforms to banish corruption and terror.
In these very days, moreover, we are witnessing the re-education of Bashar Assad. The American Administration, in close colloquy with the French, is giving the Syrian president a crash course in democracy. Either he will learn to obey or suffer the fate of Saddam Hussein. We may assume the former. Syria will join the family of the new Middle Eastern democracies, while also cooperating with Washington’s less democratic friends, such as Morocco and Saudi Arabia.
The avalanche is the product of a unilateral policy undertaken by Bush, after he gave up seeking partners to implement his divinely inspired plan to eradicate evil on earth. But Bush is not alone. He has found an ardent disciple, a battle-seasoned veteran, who in old age has discovered the charms of unilateralism. This is Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Sharon embodies the principle, “We’ll do what’s good for us and to hell with the neighbors.” He succeeded in the disengagement from Gaza. He transformed the settlers into a herd of sheep. Although the Likud Central Committee hated him for these things, he took it by storm. He has won the hearts of the people of Israel. US President Bush has already been elected to a second term, and pundits foresee another five years for Sharon (one till the scheduled elections in November 2006 and another term following them). Sharon has made a consensus of unilateralism, discomfiting his Likud rivals, especially Binyamin Netanyahu.
espite this rosy picture, reality remains complex and cruel. Take Iraq as an example. Behind the screen of democracy, America has caused the outbreak of ethnic divisions. Iraq is on the verge of civil war. Not long ago it was the most developed nation in the Arab world; today it’s in pieces. The collapse of Syria will breed similar results. Offshoots of the imminent Syrian explosion may be felt today in the Palestinian territories, especially the “disengaged” Gaza Strip. America’s interference in the Middle East does not bring democracy, rather chaos.
Sharon’s Disengagement Plan, which won full support from the Labor Party, has political elements indeed, but it’s hard to find real policy in it. The plan assumed that there was no one to negotiate with. But there is also a deeper assumption, voiced by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz in Yediot Aharonot on October 28, 2005, that there will be no one to negotiate with for at least another generation.
Whereas the PA couldn’t boast that negotiations had brought about Israel’s withdrawal (its role was confined to “coordinating” with Israel), Hamas proclaimed from every hilltop that disengagement was the product of its armed resistance. Sharon, for his part, refuses to be satisfied with quiet on the Gazan front alone: he wants absolute quiet. He wants to freeze Hamas out, although it is the central factor today in the Palestinian arena. And here is a problem. The strategic goal of Hamas is to reap the fruits of the Intifada in the elections to the Palestinian legislature, which are scheduled for January 25, 2006. Hamas seeks public legitimacy and political influence, yet it doesn’t want to lay down its weapons. These constitute its main political card, especially in view of the chaos prevailing in the Territories. Sharon, however, seeks to establish the rules of Palestinian behavior. After delivering the knock-out blow to Netanyahu, he has adopted the latter’s slogan from 1998: “If they give, they’ll get. If they don’t give, they won’t get.” In other words, if Hamas does not lay down its arms, Israel will block the paths to the polls and there will be no elections.
Sharon’s position puts the PA and Hamas on a collision course at a time when neither can prevail. If elections do not take place, Hamas will remain with nothing but its tactic of suicide bombings. The deal between Hamas and Abu Mazen, which has secured a degree of quiet, depends on the progress toward elections. If these do not take place, or if they do but without Hamas, Israel will be subjected to more attacks.
In the event of Palestinian chaos, a re-elected Sharon will continue his unilateralism. Since there’ll be “no one to talk to,” he will have all the justification he needs for a further disengagement. No Israeli civil war will ensue, but there will be, indeed, a Palestinian one. It’s already perched at the door. Nor will it be just Palestinian. It will be a regional civil war, the mutual creation of twins Bush and Sharon.
The Israeli consensus wants separation from the Palestinians – but without a price attached. The deep-seated belief is that the land of Israel belongs to one people, and the other people is an unwanted guest. Israelis say, indeed, that they want to pull out of the Territories, or the bulk of them, and perhaps they feel sincere about it. But as long as most Israelis refuse to acknowledge that their sovereignty stops at the Green Line, and as long as they refuse to recognize that it’s none of their business how the Palestinian people runs its affairs (or the Iraqi people, the Lebanese people and the Syrian people), Sharon’s “painful withdrawals” will wind up only deepening the Israeli entrenchment. What is broadcast as “disengagement” will always turn out to be a new form of occupation. Its purpose will no longer be to settle the land of the fathers, but to quash the chaos that will constantly seep from the Territories into Israel.