Livni’s Guidance on Arab Democracy
PALESTINE - ISRAEL, 14 Mar 2011
Tzipi Livni’s disingeuous calls for a “code” on all democracies.
I don’t have a string of letters following my name, and so I am not qualified to make clinical judgements. But it seems to me that for a brief period, at least, following the attacks of September 11, 2001, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon went crazy.
On October 4, 2001, Sharon made a speech – more of a rant, really – which literally shocked official Washington. He attacked US efforts to generate support among Arab countries for the coming war on terror. “Do not try to appease the Arabs at our expense,” he said. “Israel will not be Czechoslovakia.”
To president George W. Bush and his cabinet, preoccupied by imminent hostilities in Afghanistan, and preparing to lead a hoped-for international coalition against terrorism, the raw, emotional words from the Israeli leader comparing a US president to Nazi appeaser Neville Chamberlain came like a bolt out of the blue. The following day, the Israeli leader launched the heaviest Israeli military incursion into Palestinian-controlled areas since the start of the second Intifada the year before, effectively ending a cease-fire only recently agreed with PLO Chairman Arafat. As secretary of state Powell remarked at the time, “Sharon’s behaviour in the last few days borders on the irrational.”
But to those familiar with the workings of Sharon’s fevered mind, and with the history of US-Israel relations more generally, there was a clear explanation for these outbursts. For decades, the only international relationship which has mattered to Israel has been its tie with the US. So long as America can be kept on-side, the thinking has gone, Israel can withstand any pressures, regional or international. Critical influence over US policy, then, is not something to be left to chance. And in the aftermath of the most devastating surprise-attack on the US since Pearl Harbor, when US policy was entering a period of rapid transition, there was no telling what the US might do.
Democracy as a threat
It was clear in the aftermath of 9/11 that if the US were to take effective action against Islamically-inspired terrorism, it would need to seek the support of Muslim countries to demonstrate that it was not engaging in a war against Islam. There was talk at the time of plans to launch a new Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative to be announced at the UN; there was even talk of US support for a Palestinian state. In the days following 9/11, defence secretary Rumsfeld made a quick tour of key Middle East countries seeking support; he did not bother to stop in Tel Aviv. In such an atmosphere, for those of Ariel Sharon’s turn of mind, paranoia was the order of the day. Even if most Americans were not yet “connecting the dots”, Sharon was seized of the guilty knowledge that it was his and Israel’s continuing repression and occupation of Palestinian lands which lay near the heart of Al Qaeda’s appeal for Muslims. He explained his thinking at the time to the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth:
“There is a moment when you discover things are being done behind your back. I decided, this far and no more. A war is soon to begin. Israel will be asked to make excessive concessions to the Palestinians. Should it refuse, it will be accused of undermining the war. It was the last possible moment [to act].”
I was reminded of this brief, long-forgotten chapter in US-Israeli relations just a few days ago, when I came upon an op-ed in The Washington Post authored by Israeli politician Tzipi Livni, penned in reaction to the “democratic revolutions” taking hold in the Arab Middle East. Few Americans, I’m willing to bet, are equipped to understand the Israeli leader’s words, or the fears which lurk behind them.
Once again, US policy in the Middle East appears to be at an inflection point. Indeed, the history of the entire region is at an inflection point. And once again, a US president is expressing a dangerous degree of solidarity with the aspirations of the Arabs. The US administration has even indicated that there is a place for participation by the Muslim Brothers in a democratic Egypt and, one presumes, a place for democratic participation by Islamists elsewhere as well. If Ms. Livni provides us any indication, Israeli leaders are again experiencing a period of fear and trepidation not unlike that which gripped Ariel Sharon nearly 10 years ago.
Well they might be concerned. The future direction and ultimate outcomes of the revolutionary forces unleashed in the region remain very much to be seen. But to those who suppose that Israel’s greatest perceived threat in the region is a descent into political chaos and an increase in regional terrorism – well, I would advise them to read Ms. Livni’s column carefully. For once one has stripped away the self-serving cant and deciphered the coded language, it becomes clear that what the leader of the Kadima party – and, one presumes, other Israeli political leaders as well – fear most in the region is…democracy itself.
It is important to remember that Israel has never wished to see democracy among the Arabs, whether in Palestine or anywhere else. Given the opportunity to exert pressure in favour of Palestinian democracy after the Oslo Accords, for example, the Israelis did much the opposite: Far better to deal with leaders relatively immune from popular pressures, with whom cynical deals could be cut, rather than with genuine politicians who are constrained to be responsive to their constituencies.
For a putative democratic leader to simply come out against Arab democracy before an American audience, however, would be rather awkward, to say the least. But there is too much at stake here for Israel, to do nothing: In Livni’s own words, “…mere anxiety is not a policy for any leader”. Moreover, Israel is not about to repeat its “mistake” of 2006, when it allowed Palestinian elections to go forward, and had to exert great ex-post-facto efforts to undermine their results once the wrong party – Hamas – had won them.
No, this time Tzipi Livni has a far more clever idea: To delegitimise those parties whose presence it finds inconvenient before they can ever participate in an election. The solution? International acceptance of a “universal code for participation in democratic elections”. Under this scheme, every party hoping to contest elections would first have “to embrace, in word and deed, a set of core democratic principles: the renunciation of violence and the acceptance of state monopoly over the use of force, the pursuit of aims by peaceful means, commitment to the rule of law and to equality before the law, and adherence to international agreements to which their country is bound.”
Livni’s transparent expectation is that Islamist parties, in particular, would not be able to meet these criteria, and that any Arab country coming dangerously close to genuine democracy would be put on notice “that electing an undemocratic party would have negative international consequences.” In short, if Israel were to hoodwink, say, the US and the EU into accepting these “democratic principles,” it would not have such a hard time subjecting Islamist parties to the Hamas treatment, delegitimise the entire democratic process, and help ensure America’s continued alienation from the Arab world – which, in the end, is precisely the point.
An inconvenient truth
Of course, there is one small inconvenience in these proposed international criteria for acceptance as a genuinely democratic party: The vast majority of Israeli parties, and certainly Livni herself, could not meet them. “Renunciation of violence…and the pursuit of aims by peaceful means”? Given Israel’s past use of violence in pursuit of its interests, surely Livni cannot be serious. But let’s take a moment here to consider more carefully the issue of violence. My own country came into being as a result of a violent revolt against perceived repression and abuse of inalienable rights.
Violence? The US has never hesitated to employ violence itself or to support those employing it on their own behalf in legitimate self-defence or in resistance to oppression – and quite properly so. However, all too often, the US, at least where Israel is concerned, has allowed opposition to terrorism to be conflated with opposition to the use of violence. On the contrary, opposition to terrorism is opposition to the illegitimate use of violence against innocent non-combatants. To oppose terrorism is by no means to oppose legitimate resistance to oppression.
I happen to believe that Palestinians are best advised not resort to violence, simply because in the context of their struggle, non-violent resistance, properly applied, would serve their cause far better than resort to violence. I’ll gladly compare counter-terrorism credentials with anyone – but certainly have no objection in principle to the use of violence in legitimate resistance to an oppressor.
Renunciation of violence and acceptance of state monopoly over the use of force are legitimate demands of political actors within a state, but that is hardly Livni’s concern here. When Israelis demand renunciation of violence, what they really mean is that others must accept their right to abuse Palestinians with impunity.
And what of “commitment to the law and to equality before the law”? Let’s remember that it was Livni who was revealed in the Palestine Papers to insist repeatedly that Israel’s Arab citizens should in fact be considered Palestinians, and who made clear that given the opportunity to do so, if an agreement on a two-state solution were ever reached, she would support negotiated adjustments to Israel’s borders designed specifically to disenfranchise Israeli Arabs and transfer them, without their consent, to a Palestinian state. So much for equality before the law.
And finally, regarding adherence to international agreements: Again, can Livni be serious, given Israel’s blatant contempt for a long string of UN resolutions applied to it, dating back to the beginning of its existence and extending over many decades? As for adherence to agreements “in word and deed”, who can forget Israeli leaders’ systematic refusal to meet the terms of the Oslo Accords, in spite of their nominal acceptance of its obligations?
These are but the early days of a hoped-for transition to democracy in a significant part of the Arab world. There is much that can go wrong, and many reasons for pessimism. But as the process moves forward, the US should beware the advice of putative friends whose interests do not nearly coincide with America’s. This cynical and disingenuous essay from a prominent Israeli politician is but an early salvo in what promises to be a long Israeli campaign to undermine US support for Arab democratisation. US politicians should understand the motives which lie behind these efforts, and resist them at all cost.
Robert Grenier was the CIA’s chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan, from 1999 to 2002. He was also the director of the CIA’s counter-terrorism centre.
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