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This Day in Jewish History



Measure Palestinian freedom, not summits
by Natan Sharansky

The peace process will fail again if it is not linked to real democracy and human rights.

The death of Yasser Arafat has once again placed the search for peace at a crossroads. Ten years ago, policymakers took the wrong road, believing that peace could be made with a dictatorship. Today, we must instead embrace a peace process that is anchored in the expansion of freedom within Palestinian society.

The temptation to return to the Oslo formula will be very great. Today, many hope to identify a Palestinian strongman as quickly as possible who can prevent chaos, rein in the extremists, and reach a deal with Israel. Similarly, many view the upcoming Palestinian elections as an opportunity to legitimize a Palestinian leadership that could quickly be "strengthened" by Western and Israeli largesse.

This was exactly the misguided approach to peace that failed so miserably over the last decade. According to the logic of Oslo, a "moderate" like Arafat should be embraced and empowered by the free world so that he would be strong enough to fight terror and reach an agreement with Israel.

Unfortunately, little attention was paid to how Arafat ruled. In fact, far from being considered an obstacle to peace, Arafat's repressive rule was seen as facilitating peace. As prime minister Yitzhak Rabin put it only days after Oslo was signed, Arafat would fight Hamas "without a Supreme Court, without human rights organizations, and without all sorts of bleeding-heart liberals."

What was not understood then, or often even now, is that a non-democratic Palestinian regime will, by its nature, always threaten Israel. Non-democratic regimes always need to mobilize their people against external enemies to maintain internal stability. This is why the regime in Egypt, having lost Israel as a political enemy by signing a peace treaty, sponsors what is perhaps the most rabid anti-Semitic incitement on earth. That is also why the Saudi regime funds a Wahhabi fanaticism at home and abroad that is terrorizing our entire world. And that is why the Palestinian Authority used all the resources, not to improve the lives of Palestinians but rather to strengthen hatred toward Israel.

It is time to explore the road not taken, a road that could make all the difference.

Toward the end of the Cold War, the free world began to link its policies toward the Soviet Union to human rights within that nation. Rather than focus on what Soviet leaders had to say about the West, the focus turned to how the Soviet regime was treating its own subjects.

THE JACKSON Amendment, for example, linked most favored nation trade benefits to the Soviet Union to that regime's respect for its citizens' right to emigrate. By focusing attention on a concrete right that was easily measurable, the Jackson Amendment proved a highly effective means of measuring the degree of freedom within the USSR and, as a result, Soviet intentions.

We, too, should seek to find concrete means to determine whether Palestinians are making progress on democratic reforms, so we can link our policies directly to such reforms. In addition to the obvious need to preserve the Palestinians' right of dissent - the quintessential mark of a free society - there are other reliable measures of the new leadership's commitment to reform.

First, that leadership can finally seek to end the suffering of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who live in refugee camps. Four generations of Palestinian refugees have been used as pawns in the Arab world's struggle against the Jewish state. These refugee camps should be dismantled as soon as possible and the refugees resettled in decent housing.

A leadership that is willing to end the fantasy of destroying Israel and begin to actually improve the conditions in which Palestinians live should be embraced by the free world with a new international Marshall Plan that can put an end to a shameful humanitarian disaster.

Second, the new leadership can stop poisoning Palestinians to hate Jews and the Jewish state. Textbooks where Israel does not appear on the map and PA-controlled television programs where kindergarten children beckon their classmates to follow the path of suicide martyrdom should be replaced with an educational system that promotes peace.

Third, the new leadership can expand economic opportunities for millions of Palestinians. For a decade, Arafat hollowed out Palestinian civil society and crushed its middle class. He monopolized basic industries, controlled work permits in Israel, as well as the distribution of international aid. A test of the new PA will be whether it, unlike Arafat, is willing to embrace joint ventures that strengthen the Palestinian middle class while inevitably lessening the control the new regime has over its subjects.

Finally, a new Palestinian leadership that is committed to reform will be our partners in fighting terror, for as long as terror continues no reform will be possible.

We should be under no illusions about the upcoming Palestinian elections. The winner of these elections, like the elections that were regularly held in the Soviet Union, will not have anything to do with democracy. The winner will be chosen well before Palestinians go to the polls.

Free elections can only be held in a free society where people can express their views without fear of being punished, let alone killed. Indeed, free elections are never the beginning of the democratic process but one of its crowning achievements.

Still, whoever emerges from the elections in January should be given an opportunity to win the trust of the free world, including Israel. How can a new Palestinian leadership win our trust? Simple. By trusting its own people.

If the new Palestinian leadership seeks to build a democratic society, then the free world should support and encourage each step along the way. Such a leadership should be provided with international legitimacy, money and, yes, territory. But if the new leadership is not interested in building a democracy, then it should be given no legitimacy, no money, and no concessions. The formula for peace is simple: Embrace leaders who embrace democratic reform and reject leaders who don't.

In the last 10 years, the state of the peace process was measured largely by whether summits were being held, negotiations were being conducted, envoys were being sent to the region, or concessions were being made. According to these criteria, the peace process was either moving forward or stuck in neutral. But I measured the state of the peace process by the degree of freedom within Palestinian society. By that standard, the peace process was almost always in reverse over the last decade as a fear society descended on the Palestinians.

In the weeks, months, and years ahead, those who want to know the state of the peace process might want to tune out all the chatter and ask themselves one question: Is there more freedom today within Palestinian society than there was last week, last month, or last year? If the answer is yes, then we will truly be moving down the road to peace.

The writer is minister of Diaspora affairs and Jerusalem, and co-author, with Ron Dermer, of the just-released book The Case for Democracy

Source: Jerusalem Post

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