As the dangerous situation in the Palestinian territories unravels, one question stands out: Who are the good guys? The politicians who are now trying to topple a democratically elected government or the people in power who are trying to pursue their ideology—one that they didn’t hide from the voters who freely chose to elect them? And how come all these world leaders are publicly siding with the revolutionaries?
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, visiting the West Bank on Monday, declared, “If the international community really means what it says about supporting people who share the vision of a two-state solution, who are moderate, who are prepared to shoulder their responsibilities, then now is the time for the international community to respond.”
I’m not sure if Blair thought seriously about this sentence before uttering it—but, in some ways, it captures the essence of the West’s real policy—America’s too—in the Middle East. Not the rhetoric, the reality: no democracy, no “elected government,” no “right of the people to decide” (which they did, in last January’s elections). It’s the people who are “moderate” and who “support a two-state solution” that deserve the support of Blair and President Bush. And if those moderates lost an election—well, never mind. You can always call for another one, and another one—until the people get the message and elect the desired government.
And this is exactly what happened in the Palestinian territories this past weekend. This, and the bloodletting that puts the Palestinians—as King Abdullah of Jordan predicted three weeks ago—on the verge of a civil war, despite a fragile cease-fire. Mahmoud Abbas—the elected president of the Palestinians—announced that he is close to deciding that new elections are necessary. Exchanges of gunfire and raids followed, and soon enough, after the seizure of two ministries by armed forces loyal to Abbas, Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar started to talk about a “military coup.”
In announcing his initiative, Abbas focused not on the choice the people had made, but rather on the suffering of the Palestinian people—and Blair did just the same. The current government, controlled by Hamas, faces many challenges to effective rule, since it’s not ready to accept the three demands of the international community (recognizing Israel’s right to exist, renouncing violence, and abiding by signed agreements). The outcome of this refusal has been a virtual freeze on most contacts between Hamas and the West, and an even more important freeze on aid money. Hamas looked for help in other, more troublesome, places, but last week, as the prime minister was returning from Iran with a suitcase full of money, Israel would not let him back into Gaza.
The pressure on Hamas started to build shortly after the elections, and many wondered then—as some do now—to what end: Is it a serious attempt to rein in Hamas’ ideology or an attempt to topple the elected government?
The answer became clearer as time passed and Hamas’ attitudes didn’t budge. The policy of isolation was meant to correct a democratically conceived mistake. And for that matter, an American mistake. It was the Bush administration that had insisted on holding the Palestinian elections; Israel’s then-prime minister, Ariel Sharon, insisted that Hamas should be banned from taking part in the election as long as it was a terror organization.
The missing component of the policy that is aimed at replacing Hamas with a more constructive Palestinian government was a Palestinian partner. Abbas—moderate, cooperative, pro-Western—always seemed too weak and too reluctant to act decisively against Hamas. But now the time has come for the final test of will. Supported by America and most of the West, Abbas will be tasked with the momentous burden of taking back power from the forces of radical Islam—in other words, rolling back the most troubling of trends in this trouble-ridden region.
If Abbas succeeds, democracy—at least in the most naked form of popular elections—will resume the secondary role it has always had in the Middle East. Democracy will be a desired policy only in places where accidents will not happen. Not in Egypt, not in Saudi Arabia, not even in Syria. Abbas might not be a leader in the style of the older moderate autocrats—but if he suddenly becomes one, there will be no outcry from the West.
Which will bring a whole new set of questions to the fore. Is it wise to be involved in a peace process with a ruling party that doesn’t have the support of the people (polls don’t count)? Isn’t this policy of giving up on moderate Arab democracy a sign of racist or colonialist tendencies? What are the implications of this trial and error for other countries—namely Iraq and Lebanon? Whatever you think of the Baker-Hamilton report and its shortcomings, it is realism that is making headway this week in the Palestinian territories. Realism—and a healthy dose of cynicism.
So, the Palestinians who oppose Abbas’ moves will be right when they point to this chain of events as the culmination of Western hypocrisy. But those who support him—in Palestine and around the world—will also be right. Sometimes, hypocrisy is the most basic way to recognize reality.