Muhammed is one of my pool friends. For some years we have bantered between ourselves and with others about this and that, occasionally about politics. Recently he told me about his work with the Civic Forum Institute. This is an organization of Palestinians, with international financial assistance, involved in the promotion of grass roots activities intended to strengthen democracy in the Palestine Authority. (See www.cfip.org)
The issue of democracy in Palestine is a topic to stimulate the soul and the mind of an Israeli Jew who is a political scientist. The soul wishes all the best to our cousins and neighbors, with whom we share DNA and the history of recent decades. The mind is doubtful. What I know about Islam and Arab culture, including that of the Palestinians, is not encouraging. Authoritarian rule in families, the public arena, and the mosque, as well as a glorification of violence does not bode well.
To be sure, the recent history of the West Bank indicates that it is far from the worst case of Arab government. Several of my students and friends agree with a view heard among Israeli Jews that Palestinians have absorbed something from living within and alongside the Israeli democracy. Relationships are not entirely bad, despite what is said by extremists and the ignorant here and overseas.
In judging the prospects of Palestinian democracy, it is appropriate not only to consider Arab and Muslim realities, but Jewish history. One of the mysteries of political science has to do with the origins of Israeli democracy. Jewish history is more authoritarian than populist. Only a tiny minority of the first generations of Israelis came from countries with substantial claims of being democracies. In Orthodox and especially ultra-Orthodox sectors, rabbinic authority continues to prevail, with obedience more valued than challenge.
On the other hand, Jewish traditions include several features that supported the development of democracy here. The criticism of elites apparent in the Hebrew Prophets, and the argumentative rabbis honored as Talmudic sages serve to moderate the authoritarianism apparent elsewhere in Judaic history. A Jewish epigram is that argument prior to decision is more likely to uncover the desire of the Almighty than the decision of one person.
If the Jews could do it, why not Palestinians?
What makes me doubtful is the record in the decades since numerous Muslim countries gained their independence, and the lack of encouraging signs in what the hopefuls labeled "Arab Spring." I know of no parallel moderations of authoritarianism in Islam comparable to those of Judaic reverence for the Prophets'' criticism of elites and rabbinic argument.
Israel''s democracy, like that of other countries, can be messy. Currently we are experiencing an upsurge of efforts by the radical right and responses from the radical left. The right has passed a measure in the Knesset designed to punish Israelis who would boycott the entire society or settlements, and is mobilizing behind other proposals to influence the appointment of judges to the Supreme Court, and limit the capacity of foreign governments to support the activities of Israeli organizations, especially those left of center.
Leftists are responding by upping their efforts to boycott industries and cultural activities in the West Bank, and generally asserting that Israel is losing its democratic character.
My own view is that the extremism of right and left is a mutually reinforcing expression of frustration reflecting the weakness of both. The present turmoil is not pleasant, but I see no threat to what has developed in the course of six decades. Centrists are better entrenched than extremists in the important parties that comprise a majority of the Knesset. The courts and administration provide other checks on political passions. The State Comptroller is more aggressive in chasing imperfections than comparable bodies in most other countries, and the media is open to a wide range of opinions.
I know of no country that is more democratic than Israel. It has compiled a credible record of political competition, openness, and criticism. The country''s democracy is remarkable given threats to its existence, the weight of security organizations, problems of developing from extreme poverty affected not only by frequent wars and terror, but also by sizable immigration from non-democratic countries.
The Civic Forum Institute has a way to go before we can celebrate Palestine''s arrival to anything close to Israel''s democracy. Especially daunting is the Islamic extremism that dominates Gaza, is financed and encouraged from outside, and has considerable support in the West Bank. The West Bank continues to suffer from arbitrary justice and the lack of functioning state audit that limits a capacity to deal with extensive corruption. I would be more encouraged if the list of reports on the Civic Forum''s web site was more current. I have heard from participants in other Palestinian organizations financed by overseas governments that they are closer to fig leaves for donors willing to pay for the image of supporting Palestine than anything seriously committed to hard work.
I have urged Muhammed to include in his efforts a Palestinian student who is an expert on the subject of state audit. That will not be a quick fix for Palestinian democracy. There is no such thing. I am encouraged by the Civic Forum''s existence and activities, and I have indicated my willingness to help. Israeli paternalism is not what he needs, and I will do everything I can to avoid that.