Now that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is out of the hospital, he is hard at work conducting a serious media blitz. The president wants to assure – many will say convince – Palestinians that he is 100% fine and functional and that Palestinian political leadership is stable.
In other words, now is the time to worry. Palestinians should worry, the Arab world should worry, Israel and the West should worry, seriously worry.
Some facts are undeniable. Abbas was elected president in 2005 by 62% of the votes. It was an overwhelming majority. That was the first and last time he ran for office. There was a parliamentary election in which Hamas won enough seats to confer the position of prime minister. Abbas was so dissatisfied with the result that he quickly disavowed the Hamas prime minister and appointed one of his own, which in turn led to the bloody, violent coup in Gaza that ultimately ousted Fatah and the PLO, and left Hamas to become the ruling power in Gaza.
Aziz Dweik, the current speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), wears two hats. He is also a Hamas representative. According to what we know about PA law, the speaker of the PLC is in line to succeed the president in the case of unforeseen circumstances. But given the state of conflict between Abbas and Hamas, it is unlikely Abbas or his cronies will ever willingly permit a Hamas member to slip into the position of president.
What passes for a government in both the West Bank/ Ramallah and Gaza is more accurately a kleptocracy – a government run by those who seek status and personal gain at the expense of those they govern. The governments are rife with cronyism and nepotism. It’s a question of who you know and how much you own, and those in charge are owning more and more and becoming richer and richer.
That’s only part of the problem, only part of the reason we should be worrying. The essential problem in both in Gaza and the West Bank/ Ramallah is that for the greater Palestinian society there is a gap on the issue of democracy. They were told that they were voting in a “democratic” election. But Palestinians were never taught about “democracy.” They were plunged into a pseudo-democracy and have never been sensitized to basic democratic culture.
They know how to vote. That’s a given and it’s important. But the essence of a democracy is not just freely voting one’s conscience. Casting a ballot for a candidate or a party is not enough. Elections are the easiest part of democracy. They take little effort and are immediately quantifiable. The entire exercise is deceptive.
The essence is an understanding, appreciation and adherence to democratic values. These include freedom – not just physical but intellectual freedom – freedom of speech, of the press, the freedom to assemble, and protection, like equal protection under the law, fair and just courts, protection from abusive leadership and police harassment, and protecting minority rights. It is also about equality and a respect for human life. Without first teaching about the importance of these rights and the necessity of preserving these values, “democratic” elections are nothing more than a farce.
It takes time to build democratic institutions and to learn why they are so important. School curricula need to focus on teaching equal respect for one another and for those who are different. It’s too late for today’s Palestinian adults, but the children can still be taught. If they are, then a new generation can emerge, one with a healthy respect for democracy and freedom.
But given the present Palestinian leadership and those who are contending for leadership positions, that possibility seems very unlikely. So we worry.
It is too easy to blame Israel for the problems of the Palestinians. Internally, neither the Palestinian Authority nor Hamas have any real democratic infrastructure and no plans to build one. Abbas holds the political system together only by virtue of being the successor to Arafat. Any challenge to Abbas – even if successful and even if duly elected – will not and cannot result in a Palestinian democracy.
Until true democratic institutions, values and traditions are introduced and inculcated into daily Palestinian life, the future of a healthy Palestinian state is not possible. They say, “Don’t worry, be happy.” If only it were that simple.