Monthly Archives: June 2011

The Fatah Hamas Unity Government Is Promising


The proposed unity agreement between
Fatah and Hamas has stirred up emotions and convinced many that Fatah will
radicalize. The opposite is true and the conditions under which Hamas becomes
more extreme and more rigid are exacerbated when Hamas is isolated. Financial
support from the United States is the main barrier to the proposal. Abbas fears
loss of financial support from the United States if it unifies with Hamas
because the US categorizes Hamas as a terrorist organization. But setting US
financial support aside for the moment, there are advantages to the Fatah Hamas
proposed unity government.

On May 8, 2011 I posted an opinion about
the Fatah Hamas unity government and argued that it might be a good thing. Most
people disagree and believe that Hamas will “contaminate” Fatah
resulting in a hardening of Fatah’s positions. But the case can be made that
Hamas is most likely to moderate. The actual reconciliation statement is a
moderate document that should smooth out Hamas more than it will sharpen Fatah
edges. The document is a simple statement and you can read it in its original

Clearly, there are defensible arguments for the other side. Barry
Rubin, an articulate spokesman for Israel, wrote in Bitterlemons ( that “either the partnership will break
down or it will make Hamas stronger, the PA more radical and, hence,
unsuccessful in producing peace, prosperity, or progress toward an actual
Palestinian state.”Rubin and others have argued that the move is simply
designed to increase recognition for the Declaration of Independence at the
United Nations because Fatah will be asking for territory that it currently
does not rule. Polls show that large percentages of Palestinians want the
dispute settled and the unity agreement will help Palestinians. There is little
doubt that Abbas cannot go before the world and the United Nations divided. His
position is considerably stronger with the Palestinians united.

Hamas, it is argued, is a disciplined organization with a clear
ideology and is in a strong position to radicalize the Palestinian Authority.
Hamas has more sponsors and backing in the Middle East including Iran, Syria,
and the Muslim brotherhood.

But on the other side of the argument,
the side that resonates with me, Hamas is like any political organization that
must adapt and respond to the environment in some way. The reconciliation
agreement itself is a moderating move that has the potential to influence
Hamas. We must remember that Hamas has already agreed to form a government that
includes non-Hamas members. A reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah means that
the perspectives of both will be included in decision-making. This too will
have a moderating effect on Hamas. Hamas has generally accepted the
establishment of a Palestinian state within 1967 borders and East Jerusalem as
the capital. This is a position that is not too far from the opinions of the
general populace.

We have already seen some moderated
language from Hamas. They have referred to the importance of mutually
acceptable decisions and a balanced process with Fatah. Whatever solutions to
the Palestinian problem remain to be realized in the future, they were not
going to happen without some sort of agreement or unity between Hamas and
Fatah. And although I still cannot imagine Hamas accepting and recognizing
Israel in the near future, this too is inevitable if there is ever to be a
viable Palestinian state.

Conditions in the Gaza Strip are
difficult and Hamas, even though they hold spiritual and symbolic value for the
locals, has delivered mostly violence rather than economic help. And Hamas has
to consider international conditions. There will be a new government in Egypt
and Syria is increasingly unstable. This has upset the regional balance and
confused any peace processes even more than they are. The Arab world has been
encouraging unity between Hamas and Fatah and they have been pressuring the two
sides. This, too, has had a moderating effect on Hamas. They simply will not
get very far as an isolated revolutionary movement that spends all of its time
challenging Israel. Hamas must improve its legitimacy in the eyes of the
Palestinians and subscribing to a more pragmatic political agenda is one way to
accomplish this legitimacy.

As long as Hamas avoids violence, there is much
they can do to enhance their international standing. And even though it is
early, and most Hamas concessions have been superficial, it is a start.

Proceed Carefully When Democratizing


By now it’s
pretty clear that many people jumped to the conclusion that the Arab Spring
would usher in fresh democratic air. This conclusion, which is a combination of
naïveté and hope, mostly emerges from democratic peace theory. This is the
theory that democracies do not fight each other, that they have so much in
common and so many legitimate outlets for conflict resolution that war is never
necessary. This theory is pretty solid and although it can be overstated it is
probably true that an increase in mature fully expressed democracies would make
for a safer world. But there are two dangers to the process of democratization
worth noting, and both may yet find their way into the current instabilities in
various Arab states such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria. These two dangers are illiberal democracies and the dangerous
conditions established by that period of time when a state is transitioning to democracy.

illiberal democracies look a little like democracies but rule like autocracies.
They maintain the image of democracy with elections and a certain amount of
personal freedoms but maintain a central autocratic control. Fareed Zakaria in
his well-known Foreign Affairs essay on illiberal democracies explained them most clearly as unbridled majoritarianism riding roughshod over constitutionalism. And Ivan Krastev in the Journal of Democracy refers to “democracies doubles” or regimes that manipulate their own image of democracy but are actually managed democracies.

The most
common two examples of illiberal democracy are Hugo Chavez’s revolutionary
Venezuela and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. There are differences between the two
because Chavez presents himself as a populist and Putin as a manager. Chavez
spreads wealth selectively and maintains his popular image by being highly
critical of the United States. Putin manages a cadre of elites who use certain
institutions such as elections and media to keep themselves in power. Zakaria
explained that these new illiberal democracies are a marriage of global pressures
toward democratization and illiberal traditions.

But the more
dangerous set of conditions, and the ones most pertinent to the Arab Spring, is
when states are in the process of democratizing. This is when they are most
vulnerable and subject to nationalism and special interests. Egypt, Tunisia,
and Iraq are in various states of change with some more vulnerable than others.
There are three dangerous conditions for states making the transition to
democracy. We can see many of these conditions manifesting themselves in Egypt.

First, there
is general confusion and instability. Political leaders make quick and
sometimes dangerous alliances in order to maintain their own power.
Entrepreneurs and elites take advantage of the confusion, or worse yet appeal
to nationalism in order to maintain allegiances. Established organizations such
as the Muslim brotherhood and the military, who have a history of organization,
are in the best positions to manipulate power.

Secondly, all
of the positive aspects of democratization notwithstanding, it does bring with
it often incompatible interests and new groups who feel empowered to protect
their rights and express their agenda. And although this diversity is theoretically
a desirable aspect of democracy, it does make for confusion and the addition of
sometimes unpleasant voices that have a right to be heard. Political
coalitions, business interests, labor unions, and religious groups all compete
for the ear of the populace. Developed and mature democracies can incorporate
and integrate this variety of voices but each is vulnerable during the early
stages of democratization.

Third, the
groups that are threatened by change become most rigid. Established businesses
and entrenched elites have much to lose in the new democratic order and thus
are typically inflexible. In Egypt it appears that even the new democracy
groups who played an active role in the revolution are hesitant to compromise.
In Syria, which I would not classify as in the process of democratization
except for the rumblings of protest, the government has become more rigid and
entrenched in its own violence.

The demand for
democratic reforms is inevitable but dangerous. Of course in the long term
anything that promotes human rights, associational freedoms, and increased popular
power is desirable. The rigidity referred to in three above can be the most
treacherous if it prevents compromises. It appears that compromise and ensuring
the military and elites that they will not be punished or persecuted during
periods of change is necessary for successful transitions. Fear of religious
groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood has been so central to Egyptians that the
Brotherhood was outlawed. Now, with group rights and the brotherhood no longer
outlawed they must be held in check by other means. These means are the
compromises and trade-offs that account for successful democracies.

Think about the Irony of the UN Voting on a Palestinian State

The Palestinians have been
fighting the Israelis militarily and symbolically for decades. After many
defeats they have agreed to try one more thing: if we can’t beat them, then
let’s join them. The Palestinians have adopted the Zionist narrative.

It’s 1947 and the world has
its collective ear pressed to the radio listening to the vote on Palestine. In
1947 the United Nations was only two years old, a child struggling to assert
itself and find a place in the world. A vote like this had never been taken
before, especially for the benefit of a small group of people – the Jews – who
were an evil to some and an enigma to most. World War II was fresh on
everyone’s mind when anti-Semitism was of hallucinogenic proportions. This new
world organization, the United Nations, populated by Christians, Muslims, and
atheists was going to lend its hand to the Jews.

Except for the Arab states,
there was confusion about how everyone would vote. The time seemed to pass
slowly but when the vote was taken there were 33 in favor of partition and the
creation of the Jewish state – just two votes more than was necessary. A
particularistic Jewish state, defined according to some by the anachronisms of
blood and tribe, had been created by an organization with universalistic
values. The Arab states of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq rejected the creation
of the Jewish state and Israel’s war of independence was on. After the last
shot was fired the Palestinian elites had fled to other lands along with a
large portion of the local population.
Now, those who fled want to
“return.” Arafat deserves credit for keeping the dream of
“return” alive. Just as the Jews dreamt of returning to their ancient
homeland, so too the Palestinians dream of returning to theirs. Jewish
leadership and ritual (“next year in Jerusalem”) kept the dream of
return alive for generations. Dispersal from the original homeland, typically a
traumatic dispersal, is a common narrative element of Diaspora communities. The
Jews wandered the earth for 2000 years as the prototypical Diasporic community.
The Palestinians as a Diaspora do not compare to the Jews, but the narrative
elements remain the same. They were dispersed from their homeland, scattered in
neighboring lands, imagining a mythic community to which they would one day
return. These homelands are “imagined” because members never know or
meet the others but still live with the belief that they are in communion. The
sense of communion among Jews around the world is powerful, whether they live
in Israel are not. Palestinians who were not even born in 1947 have grown up
imagining a mythic community to which they will one day return.

The Zionist narrative tells
the story of an ancestral homeland that requires restoration and maintenance.
Jerusalem and the land of Israel over the generations identified boundaries,
sacred documents, and myths. The Jews slowly established a sense of nationhood
before they even met contemporary conditions of nationhood (e.g. land
boundaries, governing institutions, and identifiable collection of people).
After the state of Israel was created the Israelis began to Judaize the
environment. They named streets and landmasses in honor of Jewish historical
figures. The Palestinians are poised to do the same. Increasingly they insist
on calling themselves Palestinians (rather than, for example, Israeli Arabs) and
seek to rename cities and historical sites.

A troubled relationship with
host societies is another feature of the dispersed people and the Jews in
particular. Throughout history, in whatever lands Jews lived, they were
marginal, on the periphery, and certainly viewed as “the other.” The
Zionist narrative tells the story of living as an outsider seeking a place
among the nations. The Palestinians too are outsiders in Lebanon, Jordan, the
West Bank and Gaza. They are the shame of other Arab nations.

Zionism, for all its
contemporary negative connotations, is little more than a belief in the right
of the Jewish people to govern themselves and let Jewish history, culture, art
and literature flourish. The culmination of the Zionist dream was realized in
1947 when the United Nations declared a Jewish state. And now, ironies of all
ironies, and in keeping with the parallels described above, the Palestinians
want the United Nations to declare them a state.

But the Jews had
established the foundation for the Jewish state before 1947. In a future post I
will argue for the differences between the Palestinians and Jews. And I touched
on the issue of the UN declaring a Palestinian state in an earlier post on
April 17 available here. The legacy of Arafat has
left the Palestinians bereft of proper institutions and preparation for
statehood. The Jews had gained world sympathy by 1947 as have the Palestinians.
Even though I support a Palestinian state I remain convinced that it must
emerge from negotiations with Israel. The UN’s declaration of the state of
Israel in 1947 had an authenticity about it those who voted against the
declaration notwithstanding. The proposed UN declaration of a Palestinian state
in September is a procedural trick. And a potentially dangerous trick at that.

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