Before Peace Now: Palestinian Democracy First

President Barack Obama’s disproportionate pressure on Israel in the peace talks is both one-sided and shortsighted. The central obstruction blocking an Israeli-Palestinian Peace in 2014 remains what it was when Palestinian terrorism undermined Oslo in 2004 and when the PLO resisted accepting Israel’s existence in 1994 and when the PLO began in 1964 – three years before the Six Day War: until the Palestinian leadership becomes more democratic and realistic, truly accepting Israel’s right to exist, the Palestinians will view every peace agreement as temporary, and Israelis will endure more bloodshed – exacerbated by the weakness concessions and territorial withdrawal telegraph. Democracies rarely fight other democracies.  If the Palestinians focused on building their own prosperous democratic state rather than targeting Israel, peace would follow. Given those realities, America’s failure to demand and develop Palestinian democracy is a monumental error that risks worsening the conflict.
In this Great, meaning terrible, Enabling, Barack Obama and John Kerry foolishly pair unfairly high expectations of Israel with unconscionably low expectations regarding Palestinians. On March 17, when welcoming Mahmoud Abbas to Washington, Obamaendorsed “a state that allows for the dignity and sovereignty of the Palestinian people and a state that allows for Israelis to feel secure and at peace with their neighbors.”  He added: “the Palestinian Authority has continued to try to build strong institutions in preparation for a day in which the Palestinians have their own state, and I will continue to emphasize the importance of rule of law, transparency, and effective reform.”   
Words matter. Obama’s statement missed a crucial one: “democratic.” True, a democratic state provides “rule of law” and “transparency,” but it also has consent of the governed and respects citizens’ basic civil rights. Obama boasted about America’s “strong” support for the PA, saying: “We’re the largest humanitarian donor and continue to help to try to foster economic development.”  If America is that generous, why fear flexing some muscles in demanding genuine democratic reform?
Clearly, Obama wishes to avoid George W. Bush’s mistaken calls for “democracy” which too frequently allowed totalitarians the right to vote themselves into power.  If Bush evinced too much faith in democracy’s magic, the overcompensating Obama has not believed in democracy enough. The Abbas Oval Office farce reflected a poverty of diminished expectations rather than a high standard that stretches with reasonable demands.
Such a pinched perspective insults Palestinians, threatens Israelis and undermines American policy – nobody needs another failed state or totalitarian terrorist dictatorship.  The key to peace is cultivating democratic values and prosperity, giving everyone something to lose – while fostering faith in the democratic win-win possible rather than the Middle East’s usual zero-sum politics.
The US pioneered this approach during the Cold War. Obama’s predecessors trusted democracy as an ideological arsenal then more than he does now. America’s most effective weapons against the Soviet Union were democratizing vehicles like the Voice of America. This multilingual radio network broadcast the truth, in all its democratic messiness, offering an appealingly subversive contrast to the Communists’ censored, sanitized news.
America’s push for democracy today should be more subtle and sophisticated. Just as Bush learned that the right to vote can be used to elect thugs, America should learn that not all democracies are Xeroxes of one another. Even the US and Israel are sister democracies not twins. America should help Palestinians develop a democracy that works for their more traditional, Islamic-oriented society.
Instead, the UN enables Palestinian autocracy rather than fostering Palestinian democracy, especially with UNWRA, while the US tolerates Palestinian autocracy.  Ironically, Israeli prisons have emerged as effective laboratories for Palestinian democracy. Even as Palestinian prisoners get radicalized, becoming steeped in their nationalist worldview, they also get democratized, learning to assert the rights Israeli democracy offers security prisoners.  Unfortunately, prisoners often relate to these rights as truncheons, battering rams to deploy against Israel rather than reciprocal privileges based on mutuality. Still, Israel, the EU, and the US should mobilize their greatest thinkers, caring Muslim Americans, willing Arab Israelis, and considerable resources to help Palestinians develop democratic practices suited to their society and culture. We must not be so arrogant to assume that their democracy will mimic ours – be it Israeli or American – but we also must not be so condescending to assume that Palestinians are incapable of developing a democracy that works for them.
This Great Enabling reflects a broader dynamic whereby the Palestinians’ gimme-gotcha culture of blame preys on the Western and Jewish mea culpa culture of guilt. Further blinded by liberal condescension, the Blame Israel First crowd rationalizes Palestinian rejectionism just as it rationalized Palestinian terror. We see this in the expectation that Israel must free prisoners to lure Palestinians to negotiations – with no reciprocation – and we see this in the articles emerging from the Jewish left already explaining why it will be Israel’s fault if the Palestinians reject the American plan.
More important than the Palestinians recognizing Israel as a Jewish State is Palestinians building a genuine democratic state for themselves. Yet, contrary to Obama’s encomiums, Abbas is a corrupt autocrat whose elected mandate ended in January 2009. True, Abbas has at least reined in much Palestinian terrorism and remains the preferred alternative to the Hamas totalitarians. But it demeans Palestinians to grade them, their leaders, and their political culture on the bloody Hamas curve. If Kerry and Obama want Israel to make a great leap of trust, take huge security risks, and pay a high internal political price by withdrawing from territory won in a war of self-defense, the US should help Palestinians develop the kind of government that will warrant that trust – and serve its own citizens rather than bullying and exploiting them. Anyone who truly wants Peace Now must also insist: Palestinian “Democracy First!”


Gil Troy is a Professor of History at McGill University and the author of eight books on US history, including,
Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, recently published by Oxford University Press. Watch the new Moynihan''s Moment video!