- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 1, 2000

It is hard to see any good coming out of the recent violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians throughout the occupied territories and Israel. Indeed, it now seems the current phase of the international process aimed at finding a lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is over. A new U.S. administration will have to turn a new page, most probably with a new Israeli government led from the right, in seeking to achieve the goal of a secure Israel living at peace with its Arab neighbors.

But the hiatus in the peace process, and the change in U.S. leadership, does present an opportunity to re-examine the premises that have underpinned U.S. efforts toward peace throughout the Clinton administration.

If a policy is not working after years of effort, and the recent clashes do seem to have severely damaged any trust that had developed between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, then it is wise to ask why. U.S. policy has focused on bargaining between individual leaders: bringing together the leaders of Israel and the Palestinians in order to induce and cajole them into making an agreement. In the case of Israel, this is not too problematic, if the Israeli people do not like what their prime minister agrees to at the conference table, they can call him to account in the Knesset or at the ballot box, as Ehud Barak may soon discover. The Palestinian leader has no such democratic mechanisms to ensure he is carrying his people with him when he moves toward peace.

President Clinton and other U.S. leaders have devoted extraordinary efforts to developing personal relationships with Yasser Arafat in the belief he has the singular prestige to bring the Palestinians behind him into supporting virtually any agreement he might make with the Israelis. Recent events have shown this reliance on Mr. Arafat's personal authority to be misguided. The Palestinian leader does not control the groups of young demonstrators who have confronted Israeli troops and police over the last few weeks. Common sense should tell us any lasting agreement must take into account the not-too-distant future when the aging Mr. Arafat will no longer be the president of the Palestinian Authority.

Today we are looking at the possibility that years of eking concessions out of Mr. Arafat to satisfy Israeli demands will have achieved nothing in terms of bringing about a settlement acceptable to the Palestinians. Because he is not held accountable by them, Mr. Arafat has never had to explain to his constituency in the West Bank and Gaza, let alone to the broader Palestinian diaspora, the real dimensions of the hard choices facing the Palestinian people if they wish to reach an accommodation with their Israeli neighbors. The Palestinian Authority's donors and Western backers, chief among them the United States, have looked the other way as corruption, mismanagement and abuse of power have become the norm in Gaza and the West Bank.

Institutions for democratic accountability and the rule of law, like the Palestinian legislature and the judiciary, have been disregarded. The only criteria Mr. Arafat has had to meet in order to sustain the flow of Western aid on which he depends is that he remain engaged in the peace process.

For the Palestinians, making peace with Israel will mean coming to terms with the irretrievable loss of much they have aspired to. The only Palestinian leader who could ever deliver a peace agreement with Israel supported by the majority of the Palestinian people is one who is accountable to them. Yasser Arafat is not that leader, and the Palestinian people have become increasingly alienated from the peace process he represents. In the next phase of Middle East peace-making, under President Bush or President Gore, we should not return to old mistakes of courting a leader while leaving the people behind. The first step toward sustainable peace is ensuring, through the re-enforcement of the institutions of democracy within the Palestinian areas, that the Palestinians' representatives speak for their people.

Some will object that this will be a lengthy and messy process. That is the cost of democracy, and, anyway, the alternative of relying on a quiescent autocrat has not worked. A democratic Palestine would be a force for peace and stability in a region that badly needs it. It is a goal worth striving for on its own merits, and it would move us closer to peace.

Neil Hicks is a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace. He has worked for more than 15 years on human rights issues in the Middle East. The ideas presented here are his own.

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