With Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arriving in Washington today, the world's attention has once again turned to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Over the past few weeks, much of that attention has focused on the increasingly harsh conditions under which Palestinians have lived since last September, when their leadership responded to far-reaching peace proposals by launching a violent campaign against the Jewish state.
For months, the government of Israel has imposed closures on Palestinian cities and towns and placed restrictions on the movement of people and goods in the West Bank and Gaza. These measures, widely criticized by the international community, have helped the government fulfill its primary obligation--to protect and defend the lives of its citizens. Just last week, an imminent terror attack designed to kill and injure scores of Israelis and planned by Force 17, a group that works directly under Yasser Arafat, was thwarted by the closure imposed on Ramallah.
Yet the fact that I believe these policies are justified does not blind me to the hardships of hundreds of thousands of people. Unfortunately, international concern for the plight of Palestinians, a concern also voiced at every Israeli cabinet meeting, is not shared by the Palestinian leadership. On the contrary, Yasser Arafat, like Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro and other dictators, sees the suffering of his own people as an effective way to maintain his despotic rule. In the seven years since the Oslo peace process began, Western and Israeli policymakers have operated on the naive assumption that if Mr. Arafat were provided with enough resources, both territorial and material, he would devote his energies to improving the lives of the Palestinian people and leading them on a path of peace and reconciliation. The need to "strengthen Arafat" became axiomatic of diplomatic thinking, even if that meant turning a blind eye to his authoritarianism. This approach was seriously misguided. While the leaders of democratic states find it in their interest to better the lot of the people to whom they are ultimately held accountable, a dictator understands that the more dependent people become on their ruler, the more control he will exert over them. This control is essential for sustaining an authoritarian regime. Moreover, these regimes need to create external enemies to consolidate their grip on power and justify the repression of their subjects. As such, they are inherently belligerent and, if powerful enough, inevitably threaten their neighbors.
Given such misguided thinking, it should come as no surprise that the seven years since Oslo have seen a deepening of Palestinian hatred toward Israel. Mr. Arafat has mobilized all the resources at his disposal, including his state-run media, to incite and inflame Palestinian passions against Israel. While the national conflict between our peoples would exist nevertheless, Mr. Arafat's despotic and corrupt rule has exacerbated it to dangerous proportions and prevents the possibility of viable compromise.
The first step toward reducing the level of tension between our peoples is for the free world to recognize that Mr. Arafat is not the slightest bit concerned with the well-being of his own people. Though my experiences in the Soviet Union were enough to teach me this important lesson, I have had the privilege to witness it first-hand since I entered Israeli political life.
As minister of industry and trade during Benjamin Netanyahu's administration, I saw Mr. Arafat reject countless projects that would have bettered the lot of his own people simply because they would have served to decrease tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.
He continually spurned my efforts to help the Palestinian Authority establish an industrial park in Gaza that would have encouraged investment in Palestinian areas, created tens of thousands of jobs, and alleviated poverty. Similarly, he rejected a proposal to create joint ventures in the West Bank in existing industrial zones that would have fostered cooperation between Jews and Arabs and generously redistributed municipal tax revenues to depressed Palestinian areas.
Hiding behind the rhetoric of resisting occupation, Mr. Arafat simply feared the development of a Palestinian society that would not be fully under his control and that would move toward genuine reconciliation with Israel. Instead, he prefers to have money placed under his direct control, such as the 20% of Palestinian value-added tax receipts that Israel continues to transfer to his private bank account and the hundreds of millions of dollars of Western money that has been put at his personal disposal.
For 50 years, the Palestinian people have been used as pawns by countless Arab dictators. Whereas Israel absorbed hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees who were driven from Arab states in the aftermath of its War of Independence, the Arab world, with the exception of Jordan, has done nothing to improve the lives of the Palestinian people. They have preferred instead to exploit their suffering to exert diplomatic pressure on Israel and resist political liberalization.
The time has come for the democratic world, including the one democratic state in the Middle East, to stop placing its faith in corrupt dictators and start helping the Palestinian people directly. By conditioning our support on Palestinian willingness to work toward developing an open and transparent society and not simply throwing money at a corrupt junta, we can help the Palestinian people create a society that will serve as an example to the entire Arab world. In giving the Palestinian people direct control over their own futures, we will help encourage the emergence of a state that will respect the rights of its citizens at home and those of its neighbors abroad.
By building democratic societies on the ruins of tyranny, the Marshall Plan helped create a prosperous and peaceful Western Europe. Now is a historic opportunity to do something similar for the Palestinians. All that is required is that we not think any people--whether they are Germans, Italians, Japanese, Russians or Arabs--incapable of living under the freedom we all so deeply cherish.
(Natan Sharansky is Deputy Prime Minister of Israel and a former Soviet dissident.)
©2001 - The Wall Street Journal