Over a year ago, Natan Sharansky, former Russian dissident and at that point Israeli cabinet member, co-authored a book called The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror. Its thesis: the search for peace and stability must incorporate the fostering of democracy and freedom. Too often the West supports dictators rather than dissidents, he opined, but where democracy is encouraged to grow, one finds dialogue instead of terror: “While the mechanics of democracy make democracies inherently peaceful, the mechanics of tyrannies make non-democracies inherently belligerent,” as tyrannical regimes seek to generate legitimacy by creating external enemies.
Sharansky maintained that it was possible to bring democracy to the Middle East, and, specifically, to the Palestinians. “The battle is not between Israel and the Palestinians or between the United States and Iraq,” he explained in a subsequent interview in Middle East Quarterly. “Rather, the current fight pits the world of freedom against the world of terror.”
President Bush, who read the book shortly after its autumn 2004 publication, was taken with the ideas it espoused, which reflected thoughts of his own. And so, Bush invited Sharansky to the Oval Office for an hour-long discussion and began pressing the book on aides and high level personnel within his administration
The notion of promoting democracy among Arab regimes became a lodestar for Bush Middle East policy. "If you want a glimpse of how I think about foreign policy read Natan Sharansky's book,” the president told one interviewer. Neocons signed on with enthusiasm. Pragmatic national interests and deeply held ideals had now been merged: promoting human liberty had become good for the US.
But what a difference a year makes. With the January 25 landslide victory of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority legislative elections, the PA has been set back by decades with regard to enlightenment, liberties and democracy. This, in spite of Bush’s enthusiastic endorsement of the free electoral process and words designed to encourage moderation.
In many quarters there has been bewilderment, that this policy had backfired so totally. But in point of fact, it was all fairly predictable. Certain western predilections have played a part:
On the one hand, there has been a tendency toward self-delusion, a failure to grapple with painful and unpalatable realities. A certain amount of optimism is good, this is most decidedly not.
When Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen) was elected President of the PA, just over a year ago, Bush declared that while he would not have worked with Arafat, he was pleased to work now with Abbas, who represented the hope of a new era of moderation.
Why should Bush (and with him a good part of the western world) have assumed this? What – other than facile words in English – did Abbas offer that promised moderation? Abbas did not represent a new era; he was a protégé of Arafat, there from the beginning – helping to found Fatah and promoting terrorism. But in the flush of new hope, who bothered to recall that at the time the terror war known as the Al Aksa Intifada started, when some Arafat advisors had pressed for a settlement with Israel, it was Abbas who had advised a continuation of the armed uprising? Who thought seriously about his Holocaust denial or his refusal to acknowledge the historical presence of Jewish Temples in Jerusalem?
Abbas wore a nice suit and tie. He had a surface polish that Arafat totally lacked. He spoke softly and said the right things. And so hope was vested in him.
From the beginning of his administration, Abbas made it clear that he had no intention of taking on the terrorists. This would start a civil war, he declared; his way of approaching the situation was to co-opt them – making them part of the Palestinian Authority. This shouldn’t have been a huge surprise. Ten years before, the PA had forged a formal agreement with Hamas, in which the PA was called upon to cease all “preventative security” against Hamas. This just carried the process one step further; putting a PA security apparatus uniform on a terrorist, however, renders him no less a terrorist.
This was the time for the western world to have uttered vociferous protest. To have called a halt before it was too late. But instead the word went out that Abbas really wanted to do more, but just did not have the power. And here we see another relevant western predilection: where the relationship with the leaders of the PA is concerned, there is the impulse to cut them slack rather than holding their feet to the fire. If we bolster Abbas, support him with funds and public statements, went the logic, eventually he’ll come through. (The unspoken subtext: Besides, we have no one else.)
Natan Sharansky wasn’t fooled. He watched as Abbas signed the death warrants for Palestinians convicted of “collaboration.” These “collaborators,” guilty only of assisting Israel to locate or foil terrorists (something the PA, by agreement, was supposed to be doing anyway), were being denied proper due process. Sharansky knew that he was witnessing a deprivation of human rights too serious to be ignored – a deprivation of human rights that put the lie to any notion of moderation or emerging democracy in the Palestinian Authority. He called upon the Israeli Prime Minster urgently requesting that Israel demand a halt to the executions. In a letter to Sharon, he wrote, “ .... It is impossible to build a peace process based on blood." Israel did not make the demand, nor, it should be noted, did the US take a public stand on this matter.
Sharansky’s insistence that the PA be called to task with regard to this action reflected his most deeply held beliefs with regard to bringing down tyrannies. He explained this in his MEQ interview:
“We saw the Soviet Union as a rotten, weak society, liable to fall apart quickly, if only the West stopped supporting it. The first step in the Soviet Union's demise would be the West's enunciation of the true nature of the [Soviet] state. When Ronald Reagan, the leader of the free world, called a spade a spade and defined the roots of the struggle, the Soviet Union was doomed. And that's what happened. The same thing applies today. We are speaking about a struggle between the world in which human life is the highest priority and those societies that treat human life with disdain and hold their citizens hostage in an attempt to blackmail civilization.”
“Calling a spade a spade,” is precisely what the western world has never been able to do with regard to the Palestinian Authority.
The opportunity presented itself with the announcement by Hamas that it would run in the PA legislative elections. The Oslo Accords forbid participation in the political process of the PA by any party that does not recognize Israel. But no clear and definitive protest was lodged. Facile support for “democratic process” in the PA held sway, and free elections, in which all were entitled to participate, was accepted as emblematic of the emerging democracy. It was judged improper to interfere in this process; in the end, Israel even allowed Arab residents of Jerusalem to vote in the election.
But free elections are not, in and of themselves, a major signpost of a democracy. Such elections are properly the culmination of a long process in which democracy has been established in a society – a society that genuinely fosters concepts of human dignity and freedoms. After the elections, Sharansky spoke out once more with regard to the situation. "Democracy isn't hocus-pocus; it's a process," he said in a Jerusalem Post interview. "An election between a terrorist organization that wants to destroy the state of Israel and a corrupt dictatorship that does not care about helping its own people is not democracy. The results of the election were clean but it has nothing to do with democracy."
The clean results of the election, however, as devoid as they are of any true connection to democracy, have been permitted to confer international legitimacy on Hamas. On January 31, the Washington Post fostered that veneer of legitimacy by running an op-ed piece written by Hamas representative Mousa Abu Marzook.
No fool, Marzook pushed all the right buttons: “Through historic fair and free elections, the Palestinian people have spoken,” he declared. “Accordingly, America's long-standing tradition of supporting the oppressed's rights to self-determination should not waver. The United States, the European Union and the rest of the world should welcome the unfolding of the democratic process.”
These are unrepentant terrorists he is speaking of. Not “only” terrorists but also anti-democratic Islamists whose goal is to rule the world via Sharia (Islamic religious law). But still there is no clear sign of a western leader prepared to call a spade a spade.
The way out of the current impasse may come from Hamas itself. Already leaders of the western world, falling back on familiar patterns of conciliation, have turned themselves into pretzels seeking ways to find moderation in Hamas. If only Hamas would recognize Israel and declare itself peaceful in intent, why, then everything would be just fine.
There is not a speck of evidence that any such words offered by Hamas leaders would be serious in intent and ultimately backed by actions. What is different now is that Hamas does not want to play the game. These are not Mahmoud Abbas clones, offering the right words to mollify the western world.
Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar, situated in Gaza, recently declared in a TV interview that Hamas would continue to attack Israel, would refuse to recognize Israel, and would replace the Jewish state with a Muslim state: "We will not give up the resistance in the sense of Jihad. Palestine means Palestine in its entirety -- from the Sea to the River... We cannot give up a single inch."
Khalid Ma'ashal, Hamas’s head man, operating out of Damascus, wrote in a PA newspaper that, "Our message to the United States and Europe is that the attempts you are exerting to make us abandon our principles and struggle will be wasted and will never achieve any results. We will never recognize the legitimacy of the Zionist state that was established on our land."
Yet in spite of the opportunity being offered to the Western world, to finally tell it like it is, it seems the world’s leaders remain inclined to pass, once again.
Arlene Kushner is a Jerusalem-based investigative journalist and author. Her article on Fatah and Hamas appeared in Frontpage on January 26. She is the author of Disclosed: Inside the Palestinian Authority and the PLO, as well as four major reports on UNRWA.