As irony would have it, democracy is now the biggest threat facing the so-called peace process between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. This we have learned from the press reports and media spins that preceded and followed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's photogenic visit to US President George W. Bush's ranch in Texas this week.
Both the Americans and the Israelis are concerned, deeply concerned that is, by the specter of the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council that are scheduled to take place on July 17, just a few days before Sharon's planned expulsion of all Jews from their homes, farms, businesses, synagogues and graves in Gaza and northern Samaria.
According to the polls, Hamas, which won some 70 percent of the seats in the recent municipal elections in Gaza, will do quite well in these elections – winning at least a third of the legislative seats. Fatah sources acknowledge that, if anything, the polls have severely underestimated Hamas's support base. They believe that if the elections are held on schedule, Hamas will win a majority of seats in the PLC.
Recent weeks have brought on a steady drumbeat of statements by top IDF officials and Palestinian sources that Fatah is planning a major terror offensive in June in a bid either to force a postponement of the elections or to increase public support for PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas's party ahead of the poll. Senior Fatah officials told The Jerusalem Post last Saturday that they wished to postpone the July elections in order to prevent a Hamas takeover, and the Israeli government, like the Bush Administration, is praying for their success.
The thing is, both the US and Israel are largely responsible for the current political realities in the PA – where not only are all major political parties also terrorist organizations, but the relative popularity of each party is directly proportional to the volume of terror attacks it has carried out. It was the Bush Administration that first lumped the January 9 elections for PA chairman together with the January 30 general elections in Iraq for a transitional constitutional assembly, as well as with last month's anti-Syrian demonstrations in Lebanon as evidence of a wave of democratization in the Middle East.
This conflation of these events has made it difficult for the general public to understand just how different the situation in the PA is from that of Iraq and Lebanon. As events in the latter two advance the goals of the global war on terrorism, the events in the PA work to its detriment.
In Iraq, the electorate was given the chance to choose its leaders freely, with its former dictator Saddam Hussein in jail and his Ba'ath party defanged, delegitimized and barred from competing in the elections. Not only were Iraqis empowered to speak out freely against the former regime, they have also bravely exposed the roles played by the former regime's allies – the UN, Jordan, Syria and Iran – in prolonging Saddam's grip on power and in fueling the insurgency in the aftermath of his fall.
So, not only was the Iraqi dictatorship destroyed before the Iraqis went to vote, the international and regional systems that were allied with the dictatorial regime and allowed it to continue to rule were also delegitimized in the eyes of the Iraqis.
In Lebanon, where the fate of democracy remains much more unclear, last month's mass protests against the Damascus-backed Lebanese government and the effective Syrian occupation of Lebanon were not simply a result of domestic frustration with the status quo. The Lebanese would never have taken to the streets if former prime minister Rafik Hariri's assassination had been greeted with a yawn by Paris and Washington. The protesters were responding to what they sensed to be a change in the momentum of events, and this is what allowed them to express their political desires in public. For the first time in years, it seemed that the Syrian mukhabarat and Hizbullah terrorists were on the losing side, and so they were suddenly fair game.
The situation in the PA couldn't be more different. Abbas ran for office as Arafat's heir apparent, pre-anointed by the White House. Neither Fatah chief and imprisoned mass murderer Marwan Barghouti nor Hamas challenged him. The other candidates were pro forma – lacking funds and access to the media (both controlled by Abbas) that were necessary to raise any sort of challenge to Arafat's deputy of more than 40 years. And yet, despite the open field, Abbas's campaign was marked by vote fraud and voter intimidation.
Its endemic corruption – which included keeping polls open an extra three hours and busing PA militiamen from poll to poll to vote multiple times – was overshadowed only by Abbas's embrace of master terrorists and attacks on the "Zionist entity" to prove his bona fides as Palestinian leader.
The Palestinian election experience, then, is in no way similar to the Iraqi elections or to the Lebanese anti-Syrian protest movement. Whereas in both Iraq and Lebanon, terrorists such as Hizbullah, and terrorist-supporting regimes like Jordan and Syria and Iran, are seen as part of the problem, among the Palestinians the opposite is the case. The overwhelming majority of Palestinians believes that it was terrorism that forced Sharon to move to withdraw Israeli forces from Gaza and northern Samaria, expel all Jewish residents and declare a cessation of offensive operations against terrorists throughout Judea, Samaria and Gaza. The terrorists themselves have been promised protection from the PA regime, which has put out the red carpet and the gravy train to make them feel welcome in the "newly reformed" PA militias, rather than keeping its word to Israel and the US by casting them out of its ranks and imprisoning them for murder.
At the Bush-Sharon press briefing on Monday, we saw which way the wind will be blowing in the coming months and years. For his part, Bush refused to countenance the notion that the PA's current lack of action against terrorism (that is, active protection and support of terrorists) might hold up further Israeli concessions. He explained that his native optimism makes it impossible for him to believe that things will be bad and so he can't foresee a situation in which events warrant putting off further Israeli land giveaways to the PA.
The only clear position Bush adopted during his appearance with Sharon was that he sees the expulsion of Jews from Gaza and northern Samaria as a mere first step. If this hadn't been the case, he would not have said – three times – that Israel mustn't build in the rest of its communities in Judea and Samaria — even those that Sharon insists Bush has slated for inclusion in the envisioned shrunken, post-roadmap Israel.
Sharon, with no way to hide the fact that for the past year he has been lying to the Israeli public by claiming that in exchange for the destruction of the Jewish presence in Gaza and northern Samaria he received American support for expanding the Jewish communities in the rest of Judea and Samaria, has simply changed the subject. He has changed the subject by changing the enemy. It is not the Palestinians who worry him anymore, but the Jews. It's the Jews – and in particular his political supporters turned opponents who two years ago elected him on the basis of his declared opposition to precisely the unilateral giveaway plan he is now forcing them to swallow – who are the greatest danger.
In an exclusive interview with NBC TV, which set the tone for his entire visit, Sharon said that Israel "looks like on the eve of a civil war." He then went on to say, "All my life I was defending [the] life of Jews. Now, for [the] first time, security steps are taken to protect me from Jews."
The sheer obscenity of this statement
by Sharon, made at the same time that the people he is set to expel from their homes were being attacked by Palestinian mortars that Sharon ordered the IDF to do nothing about, is made all the more clear when one looks at a statement he himself made 10 years ago.
Speaking to Kfar Chabad's local newspaper in 1995 of the press accusations at the time that opponents of the so-called peace process were inciting civil war, Sharon said, "Look what happened in Stalinist Russia, for example. In the mid-1930s, the Soviet authorities disseminated stories that there was a plan to assassinate Stalin. They were used as a justification for destroying the high command of the Red Army as well as the Jewish writers and the Jewish doctors. This is exactly what the Rabin government is doing now in Israel… Have we gotten to such Stalinist Bolshevism? Where are they leading with the blood libels they are putting out? To the abandonment of the settlers in Judea, Samaria and Gaza and maybe to a civil war. We have to shout out the warning: Tyrants at the gate."
So there we have it: Not only has US policy of safeguarding the PA while insisting on further Israeli land concessions to the PA made terrorism the choice of the Palestinian electorate, but Ariel Sharon's decision to go along with the US has made him chart a policy course that leads, as he stated so well a decade ago, to grave dangers to Israeli democracy.
Minister Natan Sharansky has explained that the true test of democracy is not the test of elections, but the "town square test" – whether an individual can stand in the middle of the town square and freely express his unpopular political opinion without fear of punishment. By this measure, the PA is not now and has never been a democracy. And the only change in democracy witnessed by Holy Land residents in the last year has been the increased danger to Israelis who have taken to the town squares to voice their opposition to Sharon's alarming new policies.
Is the Middle East democratizing? Certainly not in our neck of the woods.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.