Time is Right for U.S To Help Foster Democracy in West Bank and Gaza


The time has come to think seriously about promoting the development of democratic institutions in the occupied West Bank and in Gaza.

The very idea of democracy in the Arab world evokes profound doubt, if not guffaws, in some Washington circles. But, doubts notwithstanding, there is a real opportunity to create the underpinnings of a participant political system in the territories through the development of civil society.

In the West, we associate free elections with democracy, but the home of democracy is civil society, the melange of groups, parties and associations which buffer the citizen from the naked power of the state. Although associational life has long been rich in Palestinian society, the five-year old intifada has given rise to new social organizations responsive to the needs and demands of the Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza. Despite the fact that the influence of the PLO remains strong, there is no question that the fulcrum of leadership has been shifting from "outside" to "inside" the territories.

Last month, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) awarded a major project for grass-roots work in the Middle East as part of the $2 billion multi-year Democracy and Governance project. Inspired by the evaporation communism in Eastern Europe and inside the former Soviet Union, the U.S. government now feels that the time has come to promote democracy and, implicitly, pro-U.S. sentiment in Arab world.

This is a laudable goal, since the key to a stable and peaceful Middle East is the emergence of participant political systems governed by leaders more interested in meeting the compelling needs of citizenry than the chimera of glory or the provisioning of garrison states.

Unfortunately, while the geographic scope of the project has not been precisely defined, USAID seems inclined on excluding the occupied territories, despite the fact that the potential for democracy is greater there than anywhere else in the Arab world. USAID is active in the territories, where it underwrites important development projects, but the existing projects deal only very indirectly, if at all, with the theme of governance.

As a primary target for its Democracy and Governance effort, USAID should focus on the West Bank and Gaza. This step would further advance the peace process that has confounded skeptics and which may well prove to be the most enduring legacy of George Bush and James Baker.

Although the differences dividing Israelis and Palestinians loom large, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's tough but pragmatic approach to peace-seeking has given real vitality to the negotiations. For the first time since the signing of the original Camp David accords, the Palestinians of the territories have a real opportunity to win autonomy, if not, eventually, independence. Unlike his predecessors, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, Mr. Rabin and his associates are not metaphysically committed to the West Bank or Gaza.

Autonomy implies control by the Palestinians over their own destiny, except in the spheres of national defense and foreign relations. If autonomy is to permit the Palestinians a real voice in governing themselves -- as Israel says it intends -- then it is appropriate for American funds to be spent on the promotion of a civil society which lies at the heart of any participant political order.

Just as during the British mandate period the Israelis created a well organized community (called the Yishuv) characterized by highly developed educational institutions, courts, banks, associations, newspapers, universities and the like, the Palestinians have undertaken similar efforts and, in effect, created a Yishuv of their own. Palestinian civil society has met urgent needs for the delivery of health care, legal assistance, education and other essential social services, often with little assistance from outside.

Encouragement by the United States of the further development of these components of civil society would accomplish many things. Among them it would free Palestinians from the burden of relying on external actors for financial support or political guidance and ensure that Israeli-sanctioned autonomy would be premised on the type of institutions with which Israel could co-exist.

Although the PLO will retain a strong, if not leading influence on Palestinian opinion, the PLO's authority will be further leavened by the phenomenon of an energetic civil society. Obviously, Israel would be as much the beneficiary as the Palestinians.

Was it an accident, Arab critics ask, that President Bush assiduously avoided using the word "democracy" when speaking about Kuwait? To many Arabs, the U.S. commitment to democracy is a thinly veiled attempt to extend American influence, rather than a serious effort to check the rule of autocrats and foster meaningful political participation. America needs to underline its deep commitment to democracy everywhere, not just where it is tactically convenient.

The vision presented here might provide the United States with a showcase for democratization. Given that this effort would be starting with a blank political slate, uncluttered by kings, emirs or presidents, the chances for success are good.

Moreover, this is a real opportunity for the United States to underline that its commitment to freedom does not exclude the Arab world. The opportunity is compelling because it buttresses America's fundamental interest in a stable, and therefore freer,

Middle East.

Jerrold D. Green is Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona. A. R. Norton is professor of political science at the United States Military Academy.

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