Israel Report

July 2001         

Before Peace, Democracy

Developing Palestinian civil society is central to the success of the process

July 5, 2001
Neill Lochery - National Post

To date, much has been written on the technical reasons for the failure of the Israelis and Palestinians to turn a peace process initiated in Oslo in 1993 into a permanent peace. Much less thought, however, has been given to the deeper problems that lie behind this failure.

Ignoring the nuts and bolts of the accords, the key philosophical aim of Oslo was to integrate Israel into the Middle East. Underpinning this hope was the perception that the Arab world was shifting toward political and economic liberalization and that the Palestinian Liberation Organization would be at the forefront of the development of democracy and improved human rights (including rights for women) in the Middle East. Palestinians, like Israelis some 40 years earlier, were deemed to be a special case. Surely these people, many of whom had lived in refugee camps for nearly half a century, would demand more than rule by a despot or family dynasty.

The development of Palestinian civil society was, in turn, central to the success of the peace process. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians would be impossible without the development of strong democratic institutions. Leadership was also viewed as a prerequisite. In the heady days of 1993, it was presumed that the Palestinian leadership, most of whom lived in exile, would come flooding back to the West Bank to develop the political and economic infrastructure for a future state. The reality was different. Those who returned were the political and security elite -- one cannot survive without the other. In effect, Yasser Arafat, his political cronies and the various military elements of Fatah set about constructing an elected dictatorship that has come to dominate Palestinian life.

The economic elite remained in the Diaspora, reluctant to invest in what many saw as a corrupt regime, while others did try but got burned and withdrew their initial investments. Ironically, it was this group that was keenest to see the peace process succeed. Economic leaders had long since stopped viewing Israel as an obstacle to a strong regional economy. Rather, they viewed Israel as the gateway to economic success through the development of joint projects that used the region's two greatest commodities: Israeli high-tech knowledge and cheap Arab labour.

Without the needed investment from its own elite, together with the non-arrival of most of the promised aid from Arab countries, Palestinians living in areas under PA control saw their economic position worsen, not improve. In the absence of any economic improvement and with increased potential for civil strife, Mr. Arafat and the PA turned their backs on any real democratic reforms (if they had ever embraced them in the first place). Monies were increasingly diverted into developing the two rival security forces Mr. Arafat deemed necessary to maintain power. Opposition was not tolerated. Journalists who attempted to expose the corruption in the PA were barred or thrown in jail.

The PA came to resemble other Arab dictatorships that shape and control their myths and place in history through control over the print media and television. Mr. Arafat turned to Israel-bashing during times of internal crisis. Since the signing of Oslo -- at a time the leadership of the PA should have been preparing Palestinians for peace -- we have witnessed the most overt use of the media for propaganda purposes (anti-Israel) in the Arab world for some time. Even children's cartoons were not exempt from this: One famously depicted Israelis as pigs. Stories that Israel was routinely poisoning the Palestinian water supply were given coverage in news bulletins.

As a result, Palestinians today are no more prepared for peace than before the peace process started. Israel is blamed for the economic ills -- the PA leadership is careful to talk up the effects of Israeli closures of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that routinely follow a terrorist attack in Israel. This blame game deflects from the real source of the ills of the Palestinian people -- the PA. The Palestinians should put their own house in order before talking peace. To be fair, democracy in Israel is also under great stress, but at least there is a relatively free and lively press and people hold governments accountable for their actions.

The message to the Palestinians should be clear: Embrace democracy and human rights, spend less on ensuring the continuation of Mr. Arafat's regime and develop a genuinely free press that is prepared to debate the issues surrounding peace in a mature and open way. Failure to address these problems will mean that any future peace process or agreement will be a road to nowhere, just as, with the benefit of hindsight, Oslo was from the outset.

Neill Lochery is director of the Centre for Israeli Studies at University College in London.

©2001 - National Post

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