Commentary Magazine


Palestinian Democracy Requires Palestinian Democrats

Mustafa Barghouthi is the sort of Palestinian that Western politicians and journalists like. He is not affiliated with either Hamas or Fatah and thus cannot be accused of being a front man for the terrorists who make up the core of both those groups. Thus when Barghouthi (whose cousin Marwan is a Fatah terrorist currently serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail for committing multiple murders) laments the failures of Palestinian democracy, Westerners are inclined to listen and sympathize. In Foreign Policy today, Barghouthi uses the occasion of the cancellation of Palestinian municipal elections to make the case that democracy is an essential ingredient to Middle East peace, and he couldn’t be more right when he declares: “The only lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians will be based on a settlement negotiated between two democracies — this was the case in Europe, and it will be the case in the Middle East.”

But he’s wrong to blame Israel as well as the United States and the rest of the democratic West — which have all backed the Palestinian Authority’s decision to cancel elections — for this latest chapter in what he calls “the slow death of Palestinian democracy.”

The primary reason why democracy has not taken hold among Palestinians is obvious: a lack of Palestinian democrats. The independent Barghouthi may be one, but he also illustrates the unpopularity of such a stance. His party has virtually no following, especially in comparison with the popular Hamas and the corrupt Fatah factions whose nationalist bona fides have been based on the number of Israelis they have killed, not the creation of democratic structures or even economic development. Both have won elections in the past that were deemed fair by some observers (though it is difficult to campaign against armed factions whose followers tend to take opposition badly) but quickly demonstrated that they had no interest in risking another vote.

Israel and the United States are widely blamed for refusing to accept the outcome of elections that bring terrorists like Hamas (which won the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections and then seized Gaza in a bloody coup the following year) to power. This is seen as hypocrisy and, especially on Israel’s part, a sign that support for Palestinian democracy is insincere. But how can the election of a group that is irrevocably committed to endless war against a Jewish state as well as clearly uninterested in maintaining anything that looks like democracy or pluralism among their own people be seen as an outcome that democrats should respect? In the case of both Fatah and Hamas, it has been the same pattern that has been repeated time and again in the Third World: “one man, one vote, one time.” Hamas has no more interest in an election in which its opponents would have a fair chance to beat it than does Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas, whose term of office as president of the Palestinian Authority expired more than a year ago, with no sign of his relinquishing power in the foreseeable future.

The problem is more fundamental than canceled elections; it is the culture of Palestinian politics. For the better part of a century, it has been a political culture that demonizes those who have favored accommodation with the Jews and lionizes those who engage in violence against them. This is a point that is amply proved in Efraim Karsh’s excellent new book, Palestine Betrayed, which discusses the way Palestinian leaders led their people to destruction in 1948. Barghouthi says that his people’s “democratic shortcomings” should not be held against them and used as an “excuse” to avoid giving them a state. But how can Israel be blamed for refusing to hand over territory and to create, as Barghouti says, a real state with total sovereignty (meaning not demilitarized) from which the terrorist groups that would dominate such a state can continue their war on Israel? The majority of Israelis would favor drastic concessions if they led to peace, and the “right-wing” coalition that governs Israel (by consent of the governed via democratic elections) has stated its willingness to accept a two-state solution. But until the dominant Palestinian factions actually embrace democracy — and give up violence — peace is nowhere in sight.