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America's democracy of double standards won't work

By David Hirst
Special to The Daily Star
Monday, February 21, 2005


U.S. President George W. Bush has proclaimed the spread of "freedom and democracy" in the Middle East a central task of his second term. The God-given right of all peoples, in the Middle East they are to be instrumental too, a panacea for all those ills that afflict not just the region itself, but the world. Since tyranny breeds hatred and "violence that crosses the most defended borders," democracy will extirpate them. Since democracies are good-neighborly, Arab democracies will embrace Israel in a final peace, and "regime change," for example via U.S. support for the "liberty" Iranians crave, will erase the menace of nuclear arms in the hands of "loathed" and "unelected" mullahs.

America as the champion of democracy is not a new idea - only the scope, fervor, and lofty expectations Bush invests it with. But nowhere has it had a more dismal record than in the Middle East, corrupted by strategic opportunism, selectivity and double standards, with friendly despots like Saddam Hussein supported against unfriendly ones like Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Bush has admitted such past flaws. In his State of the Union address he reserved his toughest words for Iran and Syria. But also singling out Saudi Arabia and the "great nation" of Egypt, he warned that democracy must encompass U.S. friends too.

Nonetheless, conspicuously absent from his list was the one country, Israel, which, if mentioned, would have done more to advance his entire, civilizing mission than any other. Clearly, he couldn't stray far from the maxim to which most American politicians deem it politic to subscribe: "Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East." Moreover, it is from Israel, in the person of cabinet minister Natan Sharansky, that Bush draws inspiration for his democratizing crusade. In his book, "The Case for Democracy," the former Soviet dissident contends that nations should base their relations on the "moral clarity" that distinguishes "free societies" from "societies of fear"; so Arabs must be democratic before Israel can make peace with them. Sharansky's thinking, says Bush, is "part of my presidential genes," and his book was woven, almost verbatim, into the president's inaugural address.

But is Israel really a democracy? It is for its Jewish citizens, who enjoy constitutional freedoms Arab regimes suppress. But for the Palestinians it is not - a fact most aptly, and topically, personified by this self-same Sharansky, a hero of freedom in the White House, but an expansionist zealot at home.

The Israel that Palestinians know is the one that, in Mandatory Palestine, sabotaged all British attempts to install representative government until the Jewish minority was strong enough to impose its will on the Palestinia majority by force; the Israel that drove most of them out in 1948; the one that oppressed, in what amounted to apartheid in all but name, Palestinians who stayed behind, and then extended this system, in other forms, to the West Bank and Gaza after 1967.

Even if Israel's democratic deficit takes a very different form from Arab ones, it is no less hypocritical of Bush to demand democracy from the Arabs and not from Israel. Counterproductive too, because, without that, the reviving peace process will run into the same impasse under the "moderate" Mahmoud Abbas as it did under Yasser Arafat. For if that so-called obstacle to peace has disappeared, others, like Sharansky, formidably remain. Land always lay at the heart of the conflict. Last summer, reviving an infamous, long-dormant regulation, the Absentee Property Law, Israel's ministerial committee on Jerusalem affairs, which Sharansky heads, decreed that Palestinians who owned land in East Jerusalem but didn't live on it were "absentees," their property forfeited to the Custodian of Absentee Property. Overnight, thousands of people were dispossessed, without right of appeal or compensation, of ancestral land worth hundreds of millions of dollars - perhaps half the area of East Jerusalem. The decree was secret, even as it acquired the validity of a cabinet decision, and was only exposed last month by the daily Haaretz.

"Undemocratic" was not the first description that sprang to mind; "[T]hieving racist discrimination," or "state stupidity of the highest order" was what occurred to the Israeli paper's commentators. But the very antithesis of democracy it was, for Palestinians obviously, but also for Israelis, willfully deprived of the right to know about, and debate, an action which could be as momentous, in its ultimate repercussions, for their future as for the Palestinians.

That the Israeli state was overwhelmingly built on such methods is a historical reality in which the Palestinians, through the Oslo Accord, have formally acquiesced. But that champions of democracy like Sharansky should go on applying these lawless methods to the 23 percent of original Palestineleft for the construction of a Palestinian state - on such a scale, in the future capital itself - is a fundamental assault on the very idea of peace and reconciliation between two peoples striving to share the narrow space between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.

So, too, is American tolerance of it. For the fact is that, while the Bush administration has complained about this scandal, and helped get Israel's attorney general publicly repudiate what he had secretly connived in, the despoiling and settlement of Palestinian land goes on, a process whose consequences Bush himself, reversing decades of American policy, last summer effectively blessed in what some Israelis called his "new Balfour Declaration."

These double standards are counterproductive way beyond Palestine itself, so malignantly does Palestine permeate the politics and emotions of the entire region; so pre-eminent a yardstick it is, in Arab eyes, of all America seeks to do there. Tyrants have no better weapon. Take Egypt. When, last month, the secret police arrested a parliamentarian who was agitating for a genuine presidential election, not the single-candidate referendum in which the 76-year old Hosni Mubarak will this year again run, another pro-democracy parliamentarian begged America not to intervene on his behalf, for that would have only damaged his cause.

And take Iran, potentially a "new Iraq" writ large. Diplomacy might never get it to abandon its nuclear ambitions, but diplomacy which ignores the nuclear non-proliferation treaty's principle of universality, its provision that nuclear prohibition in the Middle East requires the adhesion of all its states, including Israel, certainly won't. Here the double standards are European as well as American. The threatened alternative, "regime change" and disarmament by force, would, said Iranian Nobel Peace prize winner Shirin Ebadi, be an "utter disaster" for human rights in Iran. And, one might add, for U.S.-led freedom and democracy in the rest of the Middle East.


David Hirst, a long time Middle East correspondent for London's The Guardian, is author of "The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East." He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

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