The “Arab Spring” that has already toppled autocracies in Tunisia and Egypt and threatens to do likewise to others, raises hope for a transition to democracy in North Africa and the Middle East. But the process could be pushed disastrously off track by the Palestinian plan for a unilateral declaration of independence of a state encompassing Gaza and the West Bank, to be followed in September by a UN General Assembly resolution recognizing that state.
The resolution is sure to be backed by a large majority, including all the Arab and Muslim states. Leaving aside the legal questions it raises, the likely disastrous consequences on the ground, and the precedent it sets for other irredentist movements elsewhere, the initiative itself casts grave doubt on the prospects for democracy in the Arab world.
One would expect emerging forces of Arab democracy to feel an affinity with the sole existing democracy in the region, the State of Israel, and at the very least to lower the decibel of anti-Israel rhetoric. Surely the Palestinians seek to build their new state on a foundation of democracy, with Israel as face-to-face negotiating partner and ally. After all, Israel was the only nation that, time after time, sought to bequeath the Palestinians a state, most notably in 1947, when it accepted the United Nations partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, and in 2000–01, when the Israeli government agreed, at Camp David, to evacuate land it had gained in a defensive war so a Palestinian state might be set up there. On both occasions Israel’s offers were rebuffed, the first time by an invasion of Arab armies and the second by Yasir Arafat’s last-minute refusal to accept a state.
That pattern is now repeating itself. The Palestinian Authority has refused to negotiate peace with Israel and has instead entered into alliance with Hamas, which rules Gaza with an iron fist; tramples on the freedom of religion, speech and assembly essential to any true democracy; fires rockets across the border at Israeli civilians; denounced the killing of Osama bin Laden; and is classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the EU. It is this unified PA-Hamas front that is about to declare an independent Palestine and take its cause to the UN.
Hamas’s charter not only rejects a Jewish state in the Middle East, but even calls for the murder of Jews. As President Obama said, “Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection.” While some claim to hear vague suggestions that Hamas may now be willing to accept a long-term truce with Israel, the opposite seems to be closer to the truth: The PA is moving in the direction of Hamas’s rejectionism.
On May 16, Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the presumably moderate PA, in a New York Times op-ed called for a “just solution” to the Palestinian refugee problem not in the hoped-for unilaterally declared state of Palestine, but in Israel proper.
Flooding Israel with thousands of Palestinians would put an end to Israel as a Jewish state and create two Palestinian states, the antithesis of President Obama’s call for “two states for two peoples.” And neither Abbas nor Hamas is willing to commit to an end to the conflict with Israel even if their demands are met. Surely Israelis are justified in suspecting that the Palestinian leadership’s current stance is aimed at the ultimate elimination of Israel.
Democratic peace theorists often argue that no democratic state has ever made war on another. Those nations that support a unilateral declaration of independence in the General Assembly will be effectively trying to elevate to statehood an entity that has declared a long-term war of annihilation on a democratic member-state — the only one in the Middle East.
In doing so they will help bury the democratic promise of the Arab Spring.