Israel’s former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, draws attention to a major cause of the conflict in the Mideast in his book A Place Among the Nations. He wrote: “Here, in a nutshell, is the main problem of achieving peace in the Middle East: Except for Israel, there are no democracies. None of the Arab regimes is based on free elections, a free press, civil rights and the rule of law” (1993, p. 248, emphasis in original).
Humanly speaking, Mr. Netanyahu is right. Many Arab regimes border on being outright dictatorships, subject to assassinations and changes of power by coups d’état. Fear of assassination may have been one of the main reasons Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat rejected Ehud Barak’s last peace proposal just before a wholesale return to street violence in several areas of the West Bank and Gaza. According to some reports, Mr. Arafat is said to have told President Clinton that if he accepted that offer he would be killed.
Historical reasons are evident for the lack of democracy in the Arab world. Chief among them is the disorderly demise of the Turkish Ottoman Empire immediately after World War I. The end of that empire left scattered remnants of Arab peoples ruled by various European colonial powers, primarily the British. Then, a quarter-century later in the aftermath of World War II, the withdrawal of the Europeans did not help matters. Few Middle Easterners were properly prepared to rule themselves.
Regrettably, the Western powers have done little in the past half century to encourage democratic reforms in the Arab world. Calls for legitimate civil rights have been muted. Why? One simple explanation is that Arab regimes possess a good portion of the world’s oil supply, and few outsiders are willing to run the risk of antagonizing the suppliers.
Even a democracy, however, can be a hindrance to peace under certain circumstances. Consider the nation of Israel as an example.
In the words of Bernard Lewis, professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, “the Israelis saddled themselves from the start with what must be one of the worst electoral systems in the free world, and then, by the direct election of the Prime Minister, found a way to make it even worse” (The Future of the Middle East, 1997, p. 15).
In spite of the obvious advantages of their flourishing democracy, Israel sometimes has changed prime ministers at a critical time in the peace process or been intimidated by one or more of its small political parties threatening to bring down the government at a moment’s notice. Israel’s proportional representation system, in which the power of minor political powers is magnified in coalition governments, is a serious structural problem in Israel’s democracy and can be an obstacle to peace in the Middle East. GN