Lessons For the Middle East

With his new plan to drive Cuba towards freedom with human rights demands, George W. Bush is taking a page out of the old cold war book. His support for the continued embargo, his requirement for freer trade unions and his demand for free elections resemble the carrot-stick approach laid out by the Helsinki Accords for the Communist east. But can the cold war's lessons also be applied to the west's central problem, the Middle East?

Yes indeed, says at least one party on the scene - Natan Sharansky, Israel's deputy prime minister. Mr Sharansky is pushing a reform plan for the Palestinians. Our great mistake in the Middle East over the past decade, he says, is failing to recognise the truths of the old superpower stand-off. "The surprising thing is that after such a unique victory, this lesson was fully abandoned and ignored" when it comes to the Middle East, he says.

He speaks with authority, since, as a dissident in solitary confinement, he was one of the cold war's great warriors. In a call from Israel, Mr Sharansky laid out the relevant cold war truths, showed how they applied to the failures of the Oslo Accord and suggested a path to a better future, including democracy in the Middle East.

Mr Sharansky's starting- point is that Yassir Arafat is a dictator. (The elections conducted by the Palestinian Authority a few years ago were a sham, since a weak unknown, the 72-year-old social worker Samiha Khalil, was his only opponent.) The first thing for the west to recognise, he says, is that you cannot work with dictators - neither a Brezhnev, nor an Arafat.

That is because dictators will never be satisfied by simple concessions of land, aid or trade such as those offered after Oslo. Indeed, isolated concessions tend to drive dictators to extremes, because only by continuing to convince their subjects that they remain under siege can the dictators stay in power. Just as Soviet leaders sustained power by rehearsing the memory of wartime sacrifice and fuelling hostility towards the US, Mr Arafat sustains power through popular antagonism towards Israel.

Supporters of Oslo on the left accepted Mr Arafat as a strongman because they thought it would be wrong to interfere in Palestinians' internal affairs. Oslo supporters on the right also accepted dictatorship, because they believed that only a dictator could do the necessary dirty work - suppressing Hamas and other militants. But this, according to Mr Sharansky, was wrong: in the past decade, "the biggest illusion was not even Oslo, the agreement, but the illusion that only a strong dictator can bring peace".

Mr Sharansky also argues that negotiation with dictators is morally wrong and politically dangerous: by ceding authority to strongmen, we reinforce their tyranny. Nothing dismayed and entrapped Soviet citizens more than Richard Nixon's idea that dÈtente was the answer to US-Soviet tensions. Oslo's structure handed Mr Arafat the power to "build a system of education that was based on hatred" and to strengthen "the suffering of the people in refugee camps". The hate object this time was not the capitalist west but Israel.

Third, Mr Sharansky points out that linkage between economic aid and political liberty is crucial. In the case of the Soviet Union, he recalls, it was the Jackson-Vanik amendment that required the Soviet Union to liberalise emigration in exchange for trade;and the Helsinki Accord, with its mandatory set of human rights, that forced Soviet change. Yet after helping out Arab nations in the Gulf war, he points out, western allies failed to place "even one demand" for democratisation on Saudi Arabia or other Arab allies. The absence of democracy there for another decade helped turn those countries into powder-kegs of fundamentalism.

Fourth, it is important not to underestimate the yearning for democracy among Palestinians and other Arabs. The subtext of the current western view, he says, is that Arabs do not necessarily want democracy. He recalls that the Nixon administration made the same sort of cultural argument: "that Russia is not built for democracy; that for 1,000 years we [Russia] never had democracy" - except briefly - and so on. This argument is a convenient excuse for inaction. But Palestinians are like anyone else: given a chance at freedom, they will stop becoming suicide bombers.

Yet Mr Sharansky opposes instant elections for the Palestinian people. Instant elections in a society of fear such as that led by Mr Arafat would be a sham, he says, just as they were in the fearful Soviet Union of the mid-1970s. Instead, the US and those Arab states that recognise the state of Israel should establish a new democratic authority, with Israel's only input being a veto on documented terrorists' participation.

For three years, this co-ordinating body would work, dismantling refugee camps, teaching democracy, fostering a freer press. Just as Germany and Japan had to undergo a process of political and economic rehabilitation, says Mr Sharansky, so must the Palestinians. "Elections are in the end of this period."

Unlike many on the American, European or Israeli right, Mr Sharansky believes that Palestinian hostility to Jews is not the core problem but rather the symptom of a dictatorship - Mr Arafat has to create enemies in order to keep power. "If the neighbours of the Palestinians were not Jews, but French or English, he would have to launch a campaign of hatred against them."

The west is in part responsible for Palestinian despair and Arab suffering under dictators, he concludes. "We, the leaders of the free world, are betraying our own principles - that all people are equal and that all people deserve to live in freedom and democracy." In other words, only if we learn the cold war's lesson of action can we avoid a conflict as long and terrible as that one.

© Copyright 2002 Financial Times

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