Blair 298.88 ap.
(photo credit: AP [file])
The appointment of the former British prime minister as the Quartet's representative for the Middle East peace process has already put Tony Blair in the crossfire of regional politics.
Many Arab commentators have voiced their dissatisfaction with the appointment of a person identified with President Bush's policies in Iraq; some Israelis have expressed a mild unease, given Blair's insistence on an early cease-fire in last year's Lebanon war; and there are rumblings from Brussels that Blair may take some of the limelight from the EU's Javier Solana.
On top of all this, it is a fact that numerous international mediators have failed in the past, and there is no indication that this is a particularly more auspicious time for peace making in the region.
But there is one aspect of Blair's mission statement which is new - and in which he may get some results if he moves wisely and carefully: He is to help the Palestinians build up coherent institutions. More than anything else, the failure at Palestinian nation-building through the lack of effective institutions is one of the worst enemies of the Palestinian quest for statehood. If they continue to fail in this, their dream of a state is doomed to be swallowed up - as in Gaza - in internecine bloodshed, with numerous militias and clan-based gangs fighting and murdering each other.
This has happened to the Palestinians before, though they are careful not to let outsiders know it. The 1936-39 revolt against the British in Palestine, of which terrorist attacks against civilians, Jews and British, were the hallmark, ended in a bloodbath in which the two main armed militias - one identified with the Husseinis, the other with the more moderate Nashashibis - killed more Palestinians than were killed by the British forces then stationed in Palestine.
THERE IS a wider context here, and Blair should learn from the Iraqi experience, where he shared President Bush's naive belief that absent Saddam, Iraqi democracy would automatically flourish.
The flaw in this scheme - which turned a just war against Saddam's genocidal regime into the present quagmire - was not only that democracy cannot be built on bayonets. What is more fundamental is the fact that the Arab region has been the only area of the world which has not witnessed the emergence of a democratic movement in the last two decades, during which other regions of the world - Eastern Europe, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia - have been swept by democratic transformations.
That this is not rooted in Islam, but is a specific Arab predicament, is testified by such disparate examples as Turkey, Indonesia, Bangladesh - even Iran, whose theocracy is, after all, accompanied by contested elections and a vibrant civil society.
In Iraq, the US-inspired elections gave rise to sectarian and ethnically-based parties, each supported by its own armed militias; similarly, in the Palestinian territories, US-inspired elections gave rise to Hamas and the current situation in which Hamas militias rule in Gaza, while in the West Bank, Fatah militias have the upper hand.
Both in Iraq and among the Palestinians, elections spawned militia-based parties, and ultimately power grows out of the barrel of a gun. Anyone who believes that in either Iraq or Palestine there will soon be elections bringing about an orderly transfer of power from militias and armed gangs to a legitimate government sorely misunderstands the subtext of Arab politics.
Elections are part of modernity in the sense that allegiance to the state and its institutions supersedes tribal, religious or clan affiliations: it took Europe centuries to get to this point, and no Arab country has yet done so (Lebanon is another sorry example).
Again, as shown in both Iraq and among the Palestinians, neither winners nor losers behave according to what are supposed to be the rules of the game: Winners don't respect the rights of the losers, and losers just bristle against the winning majority and don't respect elections results.
TONY BLAIR would be making a colossal mistake in focusing on trying to achieve another set of elections, or another chimerical unity government (the Saudis tried this, and failed dismally). What the Palestinians need at this moment is not another futile exercise in Western-imposed democracy but assistance in putting together the building blocs of a coherent polity.
This would entail insuring, through tough and sometimes brutal measures, that there be only one legitimate arms-bearing institution. Mahmoud Abbas put it correctly - "one authority, one law, one gun" - but then continued to rely on numerous Fatah-based militias and gangs, as well as on competing security services: the Gaza Hamas putsch was the response.
While the Palestinians are not divided, like the Iraqis, by sectarian and ethnic fissures (most are, after all, Sunni Arabs, with a small and non-militant Christian minority), they are divided by clan and regional loyalties. An effective Palestinian government should bring together the various clans and regional leaders in a national unity pact - based not on parties or militia-based movements but on existing loyalties. Above these existing loyalties one strong, unified armed force, and not dozens of security services, should be established around the presidency.
As European history as shown, before you get democracy you need a strong and efficient state.
Democracy may ensure stability - but the processes of democratization are lengthy and usually destabilizing (see the rocky road from Cromwell, through the English Glorious Revolution, to parliamentarism, or the whole century it took the French to stabilize their democratic republic).
There are no short cuts, and if Blair tries to implement in Palestine what he and Bush failed to achieve in Iraq, he will add another failure to his record. Both he - and more importantly, the Palestinians - deserve better.
The writer, professor of political science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has been involved in democracy-enhancement projects in post-communist Eastern Europe.