AN ISRAELI VIEW
Disengagement and democracy
by Yossi Alpher
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is maneuvering to
establish a broader-based government in order to proceed with disengagement
from the Gaza Strip. The alternatives to such a government appear to be
either new elections or a right-religious coalition under Binyamin
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei (Abu Ala) tendered his resignation
against the backdrop of growing anarchy in the Gaza Strip. In the
Palestinian case, there is no clear alternative to the present
government--other than more anarchy.
The obvious connection between the two governmental crises is the advent of
Sharon's disengagement plan. In the Israeli case, Sharon's center-right
coalition collapsed over the issue; his challenge is to put together a
pro-disengagement coalition with a comfortable majority, despite the
reservations of many in his own Likud party concerning both disengagement
and the entry of the Labor party into the coalition.
In the Palestinian case, the prospect of Israel's departure beginning in
March 2005 has further destabilized an already chaotic situation in the Gaza
Strip. Local power brokers there vie for control by means of violent
demonstrations, abductions, and elections to Fatah branches. The authority
of Qurei and his superior, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, is being
challenged and eroded.
In a broader sense, Sharon is following in the footsteps of all his
predecessors since the late 1980s--Shamir, Rabin/Peres, Netanyahu, and
Barak--each of whom was eventually unable to remain in office because the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict/peace process destabilized the coalition. And
while Qurei in his resignation statement did cite the economy alongside
anarchy and the absence of a peace process as reasons for his intention to
leave office, clearly in the Palestinian case too the cause is the conflict
and its ramifications.
In Israel, the split in public opinion over the Palestinian issue finds
expression in an orderly parliamentary procedure that follows constitutional
rules. While that procedure is flawed and problematic and has thus far
proven incapable of delivering on a peaceful resolution, it remains better
than all the alternatives. In this regard the greatest threat to
disengagement is the intention of extremists among the ideological settler
minority to bypass the democratic process, while the lesser threat is the
built-in constraint within the Israeli system that allows a highly energized
political minority like the settlers to delay or even disable the process.
In contrast, Palestinians in their current dilemma have nothing by way of
democratic precedent and little in terms of democratic practice to fall back
on. They have Arafat, and he is increasingly understood, even by them, to be
part of the problem rather than the solution. While some of Sharon's
policies of the past three years have undoubtedly deliberately destabilized
Palestine--Israel's prime minister seemingly does not believe in genuine
peace with our Arab neighbors--at this juncture the Palestinians have only
themselves to blame. The dynamic in Gaza is liable increasingly to resemble
Lebanon, or even Somalia; that would be disastrous for the entire region.
One way or another, the interaction between Israeli-Palestinian peace and
the functioning or malfunctioning of democracy in both countries could not
be more obvious. While the conventional wisdom of the Bush administration
and many on the Israeli right holds that democracy--Palestinian, Iraqi--must
precede peace and stability, this appears to be a luxury we in Israel are
increasingly unable to afford. On the contrary, Israeli-Palestinian peace,
or even far-reaching unilateral separation initiated by Israel, could have
the beneficial effect on Israeli democracy of finally removing or at least
minimizing a divisive political issue that has been stymieing the system for
nearly two decades.
On the Palestinian side, the problems are more complex; there are no
political precedents for linking greater democracy with peace, or vice
versa. There has been one democratic election, in January 1996, followed to
a large extent by paralysis, corruption, and a culture of violence. Now the
mere threat of Israeli withdrawal has further exacerbated instability.
Yet there are many democratically minded people in Palestine who see in
Israeli withdrawal an opportunity for Palestinians to place their country
back on the road to peace and democracy. We can only hope that eventually
they will have the upper hand.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and
bitterlemons-international.org. He is a former director of the Jaffee Center
for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior adviser to
PM Ehud Barak.