For the first time in half a century, an American president has proposed the only “lasting” solution to the Palestinian problem: building a practicing democracy based on tolerance and liberty.
Indeed a “just and lasting” peace can be established only between “contemporary” partners who abide by recognized international norms, not between partners who live in different “historical time zones” and apply different if not contradictory rules of international conduct.
Right from the day he signed the Oslo agreement in 1993, Arafat did not hide that he would evade his obligations: thus only one day after the White House ceremony, in a speech delivered in Durban, South Africa, he compared the document to the treaty prophet Muhammad signed with Meccan authorities less than a year before conquering the city at saber's point.
Arafat's code of conduct does not jibe with modern international law. Since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, he continued to tolerate if not encourage terrorism and militant Islamic fundamentalist organizations. He acted as a dictator behind some democratic trimmings. He used double talk,saying one thing in Arabic and the contrary in English.
He covered up corruption when he did not himself participate in it. He continued to teach hatred of Jews in his schools and fund his own “hit groups”. He established military courts that sentenced people to death in summary trials without attorney and right to appeal. Instead of offering counterproposals to the plans presented by the former U.S. president in the summer of 2000, he launched a second intifada and approved of suicide-bombings; and so on.
To an Iranian, like me, Arafat's conduct presents nothing new. In the 1970s he had trained Iranians in his terrorist camps in Lebanon and helped Khomeini gain power in Iran. He lended the PLO representative in Paris to the old Iranian cleric: Ghotbzadeh became the spokesman of the ayatollah in exile and his foreign minister in Tehran. Palestinian “fighters” participated in the demonstrations against the Shah's regime.
In 1979 they were around the mullahs, in charge of security in the ministries and other public buildings. Arafat himself was the first foreign “dignitary" to visit and kiss the hand of the ayatollah before joining forces with Saddam Hussein in the war against Iran! The man is no statesman. He is an incorrigible opportunist and trouble-maker.
Nevertheless, I was non-plussed by the President Bush's appeal to get rid of him. It is up to the Palestinians themselves to throw Arafat to the dustbins of history and chose more dignified and worthwhile leaders. What we can and should do is to offer them and the world a real and complete evaluation of the man who failed his people and brought to them, as well as to many others (Lebanese, Iranians, Western and Israeli civilian victims of his terrorist acts ) misery and bloodbath.
That said, one must own that Bush's Middle East speech contained some very important and new points. Indeed, as he affirmed, ” For the sake of all humanity, things must change in the Middle
East ” and ” A Palestinian state will never be created by terror. It will be built through (democratic) reform “. If the U.S. succeeds in such an endeavour, the Middle East would witness the birth of the first Arab state that could provide rule of law, freedom, equality, opportunity and the “good life” to its citizens.
But can the U.S. succeed? The odds are far from being optimistic. Already, Arafat and his entourage are thumbing their noses. The old man will probably be reelected by the Palestinians and will continue his autocratic rule, no matter what the U.S. and the international community say and do. To achieve peace and democracy in the region, a change in leadership is anyway far from enough. A change in the mindsets of the people is as much, if not more,important and necessary!
Arafat has backers among the people and leaders of the Arab world. It is not for nothing that the Egyptian and Syrian presidents and the Jordanian and Saudi kings insist on keeping him at the helm of a future Palestinian state. Indeed the interminable reign of all these and other Arab dictators would be threatened by a successful Arab democratic experiment.
Such an achievement would also sound the death knell of Iraq's Saddam, Iran's mullahs, Pakistan's generals and,of course, al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and other militant Islamic fundamentalist groups all over the planet! The Muslim world which came to a naught in the middle ages because of the triumph of fundamentalist clerics allied to Caliphs and Sultans and their military establishments, will at last resume its march toward progress. Clerics and militaries would loose their grip on believers and bazaar merchants would be forced to join the real ofmodern global trade.
Too beautiful a vision to become reality? Delusion? I don't want to sound pessimistic and to play the naysayers. But, such yearnings existed (and continue to exist) in the Arab and Muslim worlds since the second half of the 19th century. Reform and modernization were on the mind of many Muslim intellectuals and even some clerics.
Thus, Jamaladdin Afghani and Muhammad Abdoh (who became at the turn of the 20th century grand Mufti of Egypt) were in Paris in the 1870s. Afghani met and discussed at length with the French historian and philosopher Ernest Renan. Both Afghani and Abdoh were convinced that Islam should reform and integrate modern science. Both called for changes in political and social organization of the Muslim world.
Upon their return to Egypt,they nevertheless somehow abandoned their reformist ideas. In february 1879, Afghani published an article entitled “Despotic Government” in which he analyzed different types of political organization, including the republican and constitutional ones.
While recognizing the superiority of “democratic” rules, he concluded that the Muslim world was not ready for these “highest forms of government” for the following reasons: its long experience under despotism; the rule of superstition rather than reason; and its opposition to and ignorance of the “true” sciences. Afghani affirmed that the “best” for which Muslims could “presently” hope is a ” benevolent, enlightened, paternalistic ” despotism which would introduce the new scientific and technological knowledge of the West and a ” more humane” form of government.
One hundred years after the publication of Afghani's article, in february 1979, Khomeini overthrew the Shah, promised total democracy, obliterated all his modernist reforms and created an Islamic theocracy. Fifteen years after the Iranian ayatollah's success, the Oslo agreement offered the rule of the West Bank and Gaza to Yassir Arafat, in the hope that a democratic Palestinian state will emerge and peace will come to the Middle East. Instead a new dictatorship and more violence engulfed the region.
Can democracy ever takes root in the Middle East and the Muslim world without a change in the mindsets of the people and their leaders?
Fereydoun Hoveyda is a senior fellow at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and former Iranian ambassador to the UN before the 1979 revolution. He is the author of The Broken Crescent.The Threat of Militant Islamic Fundamentalism (Praeger 1999). To learn more about the Hoveydas, visit their web site .