December 10, 1999
Secretary of state Madeleine Albright has spent the week
trying to shore up peace negotiations between Israel and its Syrian and
Palestinian neighbors. Then the president announced that Israel and Syria
would reopen talks.
Syria, it should be remembered, has been run by the same dictator for more
than three decades and is one of the region’s most oppressive police states.
It illegitimately controls neighboring Lebanon, from which it wages an
Iranian supported proxy war against Israel. And to prevent its citizens from
getting opposing views from the rest of the world, or even getting their
own views out, it restricts access to such basic communications equipment
as modems and fax machines.
But so far as we can tell, ms. Albright has never raised the issue of
returning the government of Lebanon (never mind Syria proper) to its own
On the contrary, she suggests the way to regional peace is for democratic
Israel to put even more territory – the Golan heights – under president Hafez
Assad’s control. Given his own views on the free flow of information, Assad
must have been heartened to hear ms. Albright’s refusal to publicly discuss
“Discussions about negotiations are very much like mushrooms,” she said.
“They do much better when they are not in the light.”
In Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, last week brought a
chain of remarkable developments that, save the names and places, could
have come straight out of a Soviet-era Russian novel. A group of 20 people –
nine delegates from mr. Arafat’s powerless legislature and 11 leading
intellectuals and businessmen – issued a pamphlet branding the PA regime
“corrupt, unjust, exploitative and manipulative.”
PA officials responded by suggesting the plaintiffs were tools of foreign
agents. Eleven of the petitioners were then arrested and some “persuaded”
Mr. Arafat also requested that the parliamentary immunity of the nine
others be lifted. After the failure of that gambit, one of the legislators was
set upon by masked gunmen who shot him three times in the foot. The
legislator claims to have lifted the veil of one gunman during the struggle
and recognized him as a member of mr. Arafat’s security forces.
Given that mr. Arafat’s clan has been murdering and intimidating dissident
Palestinians since the grand mufti ruled Jerusalem in the 1930s, the story is
In other words, the Oslo process was supposed to secure a government of
and for the Palestinian people. In fact, the PA is no more representative, and
a lot less liberal, than the old Israeli occupiers.
Sometimes, of course, even the best laid plans go awry. But what is
astonishing here is the U.S. government’s determination to press ahead as if
everything is normal – indeed, as if the obstacle is an Israeli government
that continues to build houses on the West Bank, not a Palestinian regime
that tries to silence its critics by force.
Superficially, it may seem easier to work with strongmen than with the
cacophony of conflicting interests and views of a democratic society.
But it ultimately undermines the legitimacy of any deal that’s struck (the
dissident legislators tellingly complained the Palestinian cause was being
“sold out”), and makes it easier for rejectionist groups – be they Hezbollah in
Lebanon or Hamas in Palestine – to justify their continued struggle.
This is a point constantly emphasized by Israeli interior minister Natan
Sharansky. Having spent nine years in a KGB prison for dissident activities, he
should have some idea whereof he speaks.
As painful as they will undoubtedly be, Israeli concessions on the Golan and
West Bank are well worth the price if they result in real and lasting peace.
But events such as those in the PA last week, and Assad’s continued
oppression in Syria-Lebanon, give much reason to doubt whether peace really
is on offer.
Let us recall that one of the most decisive moments in the long cold war
came when the Reagan administration abandoned detente. Long-run peace
and stability were best promoted, mr. Reagan reasoned, by promoting
legitimate (i.e. democratic) systems of government, not accommodating
whatever thug happens to be in power in a given country at a given time.
If little progress is made on the Syrian and Palestinian fronts in the coming
months, the Israelis might be well-advised to try a different strategy,
dumping the Middle Eastern version of detente, and declaring that they will
resume negotiations on land-for-peace only when they can talk to Syrian
and Palestinian representatives chosen by free and fair elections in an open