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The Failed State of the Palestinians

Ten years after the signing of the Oslo accords, three years after the outbreak of the intifada and three weeks after the fall of prime minister Mahmoud Abbas’s government, this much is clear about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Without a tough strategic decision to enforce what Max Weber called the hallmark of sovereignty — the monopoly on the legitimate use of force — it is highly unlikely that Palestinians will be able to achieve statehood.

The transition from an underground life of guerrilla warfare and terrorism to statehood is never an easy one for a national movement.

It was not easy for Eamon de Valera, who led the Irish Free State to independence. After partition in 1921, elements of the Irish republican movement opted to continue the armed struggle against the British, in the process threatening the authority of the nascent government in Dublin. For all his commitment to an undivided Ireland, de Valera ruthlessly decided to suppress the dissidents.

Nor was it easy for David Ben-Gurion, who faced down a serious challenge from right-wing paramilitary organizations as Israel fought against its Arab neighbors for independence in 1948. His harsh move against Menachem Begin and the Irgun over the Altalena affair guaranteed the emergence of a coherent and democratic Jewish state — and ironically let Begin graduate from commander of a semi-legal militia to parliamentary leader to prime minister.

Given the difficulties inherent in consolidating power, one can well understand the reluctance of any Palestinian leader to engage in a similar set of steps, which may lead to something akin to civil war. While few Palestinians like to talk about it, Palestinian collective memory is still deeply aware of the internecine struggles that took place from 1936 to 1939; in what Palestinians proudly call “The Revolt,” more Palestinians were killed by each other than by the British Army or the weak Jewish self-defense organizations.

Yasser Arafat has understood this reality better than any other Palestinian. Over the last four decades, he has amassed considerable resources — controlled personally by him — through voluntary contributions from fellow Palestinians and other Arab states, as well as through ransom money and simple robbery. His continued control over clandestine funds — whose details are still unknown even to his colleagues, let alone to the United States or European Union — have enabled him to continue to control large sections of the Palestinian population.

It is now equally clear that Arafat still controls at least part of the security apparatus, and it was this issue which, coming to a head in late August, brought down Abbas and his short-lived government. Despite pressure from both Washington and Jerusalem, Arafat, ever the master technician, managed to maintain control over two of the major Palestinian security organs, the General Security Service and the Preventive Security Directorate. Under these conditions, Abbas had no chances of stabilizing the situation. Whether the newly appointed prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, will be more successful remains an open question.

What is certain, however, is that the nature of the recent internal power struggles has shattered the hope that the Palestinians — by having been exposed, albeit under the harsh conditions of Israeli occupation, to the working of an open and democratic society — would try, after achieving statehood, to emulate the Israeli societal experience. It appears that this was simply a pious wish.

With no Arab society serving as a model for democracy, and with no serious movement toward democratization in any Arab country, it might have been asking too much from the Palestinians to be the first Arab society to develop what the whole Arab world has until now failed to achieve: an open society.

This general Arab democratic deficit, which was openly addressed for the first time last year by a number of courageous Arab intellectuals in the Arab Human Development Report of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, is a serious flaw in Arab societies. It is not a consequence of Islam per se; that much can be gleaned from the examples of Turkey, Bangladesh and Indonesia, and even from recent encouraging developments in Iran.

It is still an unanswered question, avoided equally by scholars and policy makers: Why in a world which in the last 15 years has seen tremendous development toward democratization in practically every region — Eastern Europe, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia — is the Arab world the only area which did not experience a similar development?. Where are the Arab Mikhail Gorbachevs, the Arab Lech Walesas, the Arab Vaclav Havels?

Without a leader of such stature and moral commitment to democracy, Palestinians are unlikely to achieve statehood. Most Israelis are now reconciled to living side-by-side in peace with a Palestinian state. But no country can accept the emergence on its doorstep of a failed state — akin to Lebanon during the 1980s or present-day Liberia — in which militias, armed gangs and various terrorist organizations act freely in defiance of legitimate state authority.

Bringing order to a combustible national movement, then, is the daunting task set before Palestinian leaders today. Fifty-five years ago, Ben-Gurion ruthlessly used force against his own countrymen; shots were fired by Jews at Jews, and people died on the beaches of Tel Aviv. Yet his harsh move guaranteed the emergence of Israel as a coherent and democratic state.

Whether Palestinians will at long last achieve the statehood that they so dearly seek will depend on the political will of their leaders. They have failed in the past — in 1947-48, and again at Camp David in 2000 — to make use of historical opportunities to achieve statehood. If Palestinians fail again, it will be a tragedy not only for them and for Israelis, but for the whole region.

Shlomo Avineri is a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and former director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

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