In his May 19 speech celebrating the Arab Spring, President Obama expressed enthusiasm for the "movements for change" that have been unseating tyrants previously supported or tolerated by the United States. In language echoing that of his despised rival George W. Bush, he adopted as his own the idea of promoting democracy in the Middle East, not only as a bedrock principle of American foreign policy but as an approach that will actually increase the chances for peace and stability.
In outlining his new vision, an abrupt if unacknowledged departure from his earlier policy, the President propounded six "principles" that will henceforth guide the American response to the region: opposition to repressive government combined with support for the rights of free speech, freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of religion, equality of men and women under the law, and "the right to choose your own leaders." It "will be the policy of the United States," he summed up, "to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy."
Among those commentators otherwise gratified by the President's turnabout, some focused on conspicuous omissions from his list of regional problem areas, notably Saudi Arabia. Many more focused on the last third of his speech, where he illogically and unhelpfully pivoted from the issue of democracy to the stalled Israel-Palestinian peace negotiations. Less noticed but even more striking is that in doing so, he tossed overboard his own major theme: the transformative power of Arab democracy.
Do not the Palestinians themselves, at least as much as any of the other peoples of the Middle East, need a new beginning of consensual government? And might not a springtime of freedom among them blossom into a force for peace and reconciliation in the Holy Land? Either the thought never occurred to the President or his advisers—a sign of criminal negligence—or it occurred and was, correctly, dismissed as fatal to their misbegotten plans for a rapid "solution" of the conflict with Israel.
Consider Gaza, where more than a million Palestinians suffer under a regime so repressive that Mubarak's Egypt seems like a bastion of liberty by comparison. How did this regime come about? In August 2005, the Israeli government led by Ariel Sharon went beyond what the President is now pressuring Benjamin Netanyahu to do: namely, accept as a negotiating principle the return to the pre-June 1967 lines with "land swaps."
Six years ago in Gaza, Israel voluntarily withdrew its forces all the way back to the pre-1967 lines, without even asking for land swaps that would have preserved the Jewish settlements there. Not only did the withdrawal from Gaza make possible the birth of a Palestinian mini-state, but, in an added bonus, Israel turned over to the Palestinians a thriving flower industry to help jumpstart the local economy. Their response: first they destroyed the donated greenhouses, then they systematically destroyed any semblance of democracy or civil rights in their "liberated" territory.
Following the practice of the Muslim Brotherhood, itself consciously modeled on the practice of 20th-century European fascism, the Hamas terrorist organization participated in one election, one time. In its lightning coup, leaders of the rival Fatah party were murdered in their offices and thrown from the roof of the parliament building.
Hamas's official 1988 charter calls explicitly for the replacement of Israel by a Palestinian Islamic state. Through its indiscriminate rocketing of Israeli towns, Gaza's ruling party has made clear that it means what it says. For Hamas, the 1967 line is of little interest; the struggle has always been, and remains, over the 1947 lines, set by the UN in the partition plan calling for a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian Arab one. To ensure that all Palestinians remain steadfast in that armed struggle, Hamas rapidly stamped out the last vestiges of freedom of speech, press, and religion, and consolidated its control over independent civic institutions.
And yet, despite its horrific human-rights record, the Hamas regime in Gaza has received nothing like the disapprobation and pressure for democratic reform directed by Washington against the far more moderate governments of Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain. Nor has President Obama ever suggested to its leader, Ismael Haniya, that he either move toward reform or move out. To the contrary: even as the administration hectors Israel to loosen its economic and military sanctions, it props up radical Islamist rule in Gaza by contributing hundreds of millions of dollars toward the salaries of Hamas officials. When it comes to the region's most totalitarian and war-obsessed regime, the President's newfound grasp of the linkage between political freedom and a more peaceful Middle East is nowhere to be seen.
Then there are the Palestinians living on the West Bank under the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA). There, the picture is undeniably somewhat brighter. President Mahmoud Abbas's efforts to build, with the generous help of outside donors, some of the economic and political infrastructure of a future independent state have brought an expansion of civic institutions and the emergence of a Westernized entrepreneurial and professional class. To that extent, the prospect of further and genuinely democratic reforms has been enhanced.
But only to that extent. The ruling Fatah party, for instance, has still not relaxed its near-absolute control of political speech, the very touchstone of a free society. Not only are supporters of Hamas regularly imprisoned without any judicial process but, more significantly, there are no independent media and certainly no public debate regarding peace negotiations and future relations with a Jewish state.
On the problem of the 1948 Arab refugees and their descendants, the single most important issue affecting the future of all Palestinians, the West Bank under President Abbas might as well be a one-party state. No dissent is tolerated from the official line, promulgated by Abbas time and again: the absolute "right of return" to Israel of the surviving refugees and their millions of descendants. To the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians confined to camps in the West Bank itself, the PA's propaganda apparatus continues to pledge an imminent day of deliverance—as if Abbas did not have it within his writ to tear down the walls of those camps tomorrow and help their wretched inmates integrate themselves into the surrounding society.
On May 15 of this year, commemorating the Palestinian nakba (the "catastrophe" of Israel's independence), PA television played songs and presented pageants about the imminent return of the refugees to Jaffa and Haifa. The following day, just prior to the Obama-Netanyahu meeting, Abbas published an op-ed in the New York Times repeating the lie at the heart of the nakba "narrative": that in 1947-48, the Jews of Palestine launched unprovoked attacks against defenseless Arabs, forcing them to flee their own country, and that not until after these acts of aggression did five foreign Arab armies intervene to save what could be saved.
No one living under Palestinian rule dares publicly question this lie. No historian dares offer his people a balanced account of the 1948 war, of who attacked whom, and of the reasons for the flight of the refugees. As long as this remains the case, the "right of return," far more than any question of borders, will remain the principal roadblock to successful peace negotiations.
Open debate in Israel's vibrant political democracy has led to significant reconsiderations of its policies in the territories won in the 1967 Six-Day war, culminating in a consensus for a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. We will know that Israel has a partner for peace negotiations when, with or without his help, President Obama's six principles will have struck roots among the Palestinians themselves and drawn them into the light of freedom.
Sol Stern is a contributing editor of City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute.
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