- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 6, 2000

As violence and heated rhetoric once again grip the West Bank and Gaza, David Schenker has produced an incisive and compelling book, "Palestinian Democracy and Governance: An Appraisal of the Legislative Council," on the role of state-building in the Palestinian Authority (PA). A researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Mr. Schenker examines and evaluates the historical development and political significance of the presumed linchpin of Palestinian democracy, the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC).

Established as the legislative body for Palestinian deliberations through the protocols of the Oslo accords, the PLC has been plagued by structural, administrative and political problems, all assiduously detailed by Mr. Schenker. These difficulties have inhibited the PLC from reaching its potential as an institutional safe haven for the free flow of ideas, initiatives and legislative action that many hoped it would become. As the author tellingly puts it, "Moreover, whereas the PLC derives its authority from Israeli-Palestinian agreements, the Oslo accords could not guarantee the PLC a significant role in Palestinian governance."

After identifying what plagues Palestinian democracy or lack thereof Mr. Schenker goes on to provide a comprehensive and balanced account of the PLC's development within a political environment dominated and manipulated by that less-than-Jeffersonian figure, Yasser Arafat.

As president of the PA, and presumptive head of the State of Palestine to be declared on Sept. 13, 2000, Mr. Arafat's overwhelming influence in all aspects of Palestinian affairs has reduced the PLC from a de facto legislative body with authority over constitutional security and executive oversight functions into a de jure institution that is little more than a rubber stamp. While Mr. Schenker points out that about a third of PA legislators are indeed committed democrats to whom the PLC remains the only viable platform to advance Palestinian governance, he also conveys the increasing frustration and disillusionment among Palestinians over the slow pace of democratization.

Within this context, the author examines the restrictive conditions that Mr. Arafat's PA executive offices have imposed upon nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), political parties and parliamentary oversight. In 1998, Musa Arafat, the nephew of Yasser and the PA's chief, issued a now famous rebuke of the legislators saying, "The man in charge of security services is the head of the PA, and we will not say anything except to our leadership. I will not go to the Legislative Council [PLC] to testify and I am not willing to deal with them."

Despite such harsh realities and Yasser Arafat's quasi-dictatorial rule, the book provides specific, concrete and indeed hopeful examples of how democratization is moving forward.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the International Republican Institute (IRI) and Vermont-based Associates for Rural Development emerge as critical facilitators for the promotion of institutional and functional methods of democratic governance. Of particular interest, is the IRI's USAID-funded collaborative project with a Palestinian NGO to establish the PLC Parliamentary Research Unit based upon the model of the Congressional Research Service.

Apart from charting the direction of Palestinian democracy, Mr. Schenker raises important, timely and sometimes troubling questions about the American commitment to political reform not only for Palestinians, but throughout the Arab Middle East. Both Israelis and American officials suggest that their interests are better served through the security-induced stability of authoritarian regimes rather than messy and unpredictable evolving democracies.

Mr. Schenker competently challenges such conventional wisdom. He suggests several policy recommendations to U.S. planners including: a systematic and long-term commitment to the PLC; support of the elections process; support of NGO human rights initiatives; and an unambiguous American public stand in the promotion of democratization.

Mr. Schenker has written a forceful, and in many ways, a breakthrough study on the critical issues of democratic reforms in a volatile area of the region. This book is a serious and significant contribution to the vital issue of how U.S. Middle East policy is premised and why it is now time to reconsider it. One hopes it will provoke a long overdue debate over whether American values have any meaningful place in U.S. Middle Eastern policy.

Todd Gaziano is a senior fellow in legal studies at the Heritage Foundation.

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