The more George Bush and Tony Blair evangelise about the need to spread democracy, the clearer it becomes that they mean something quite different by the word from the rest of the world. Bush and Blair’s response to the death of Yasser Arafat - the Palestinian leader who unified and championed a dispersed and occupied people for 35 years - has been a particularly instructive case in point.
Bush was unable even to mention Arafat’s name last Friday, when the pair hailed what most Palestinians consider a devastating loss as a marvellous opportunity for Middle East peace. But, they cautioned, progress towards a Palestinian state would only be possible if the Palestinians were prepared to embrace democracy. The fact that Arafat was elected with an overwhelming majority in internationally supervised elections, and continued to command majority support until his death, was evidently beside the point. He was the wrong kind of democratically elected leader.
As Bush and Blair joshed about poodles and Palestine in the White House, US occupation forces, backed up by British troops, rampaged through the Iraqi cities of Falluja and Mosul, boasting that they had killed 1,600 resistance fighters in four days. The violence and destruction was of course meted out in the name of democratic elections - which the US blocked for well over a year, while its puppet administration banned parties, newspapers and TV stations. If there seems any question that the elections might not maintain pro-occupation politicians in power (when polls show most Iraqis want foreign troops out now), there seems little doubt they will either be more tightly rigged or postponed again.
Meanwhile, pressure for democratic reform of pro-western dictatorships remains striking by its absence. The presidents of Egypt, Pakistan and Uzbekistan are free to carry on torturing and jailing their opponents without the inconvenience of the democratic reforms demanded of the Palestinians and others. As a 21st century Madame Roland might have said: “Oh democracy, what crimes are committed in your name”.
In the Palestinians’ case, the crimes stretch back more than half a century - and the US and Britain have been complicit at every stage, from their original dispossession and ethnic cleansing in 1948 to the acquiescence in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, from the blind eye turned to 37 years of illegal Israeli settlements to the pressure to replace the elected Palestinian leader with somebody more pliant. Bush’s demand in 2002 for the Palestinian president to be ousted not only gave the green light to Israel’s incarceration of Arafat in the dank rubble of a former British army compound in Ramallah, but also offers a clue as to what he and Blair really mean by Palestinian democratic reform.
For it is simply an affront to common sense to claim that the Palestinians’ plight - or, for that matter, Israel’s problems with the Palestinians - stems from a lack of democracy. The Palestinians have a tradition of political pluralism stretching back decades, while the Palestinian authority in the occupied territories barely has the powers of a proper local authority, let alone those of a state - and the scope for meaningful democracy under military occupation is severely limited. The authority’s failures arose largely from the weaknesses of the Oslo peace process, which gave it the role of middleman and security contractor for Israel, while closures and settlement expansion made Palestinians’ lives ever more grim. The Palestinian problem is instead primarily one of colonisation and occupation - and the denial of self-determination and refugee rights. Those are the issues, rather than democracy, that the US and its allies have to address if they want to draw the poison of the conflict.
But that is manifestly not what Bush and Blair have in mind when they call for Palestinian democratic reform. Instead, as elsewhere, they mean the promotion of politicians and institutions which will entrench western-friendly policies: in the Palestinian case, those prepared to crack down on the armed groups, sign up to Israeli terms for a limited bantustan-style statehood and abandon wider Palestinian national aspirations. Hence the effort Britain, the US and Israel have put into cultivating and building up local leaders - such as Muhammad Dahlan, Arafat’s former head of security in Gaza - who they hope will play such a role. Of course, this has nothing to do with democracy or reflecting Palestinian opinion: it is the very opposite. Indeed, when it comes to new elections to the Palestinian legislative council, the only shift is likely to be towards greater radicalism, if the Islamist Hamas movement decides to take part.
It is also clear that this US-British strategy cannot work. Many of those who have been rubbishing Yasser Arafat’s record so enthusiastically, and crowing about the opportunities offered by his death, fail to grasp the pivotal nature of his leadership. Only he drew support from all sections of the Palestinian people - in the occupied territories, the diaspora and Israel itself - and had the authority to make a comprehensive agreement stick. That is also why the US and Israel tried so hard to destroy or marginalise him in the name of “reform” when he refused to do so on their terms.
What it surely means now is that the chances of a settlement have receded: if Arafat didn’t believe he could win Palestinian support for the kind of deal likely to be on offer in the near future, then certainly no other Palestinian leader can.
The bitter reality is that, far from offering a new opportunity for agreement, Yasser Arafat’s death brings huge risks for the Palestinians, of which Monday’s gun battle in Gaza between factions of his Fatah movement may have been a foretaste. If the relatively weak former prime minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazin) is, as expected, elected to succeed Arafat as president of the Palestinian authority, there is no serious possibility of him delivering Palestinian support for any meaningful deal. He is likely to be little more than a caretaker figure.
Even if the much more popular and plausible Marwan Barghouti were to stand from prison, he is still a local West Bank leader whose authority elsewhere in the Palestinian world is limited. There can be no lasting settlement of the conflict without the consent of the Palestinian majority in the diaspora and no leader likely to emerge from the current power struggle in the occupied territories can speak for that constituency. In that case, some argue, it may be better to concentrate on maintaining Palestinian unity, postpone serious negotiations, continue legitimate resistance and rebuild political organisation in the Palestinian diaspora for the longer term. Now that could be a real democratic process - but perhaps not what Bush and Blair have in mind.