- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 25, 2006

Many are troubled that Hamas — a terrorist organization committed to destroying Israel by force — was “democratically elected” by the Palestinians.

But that isn’t true. The election Hamas won was not democratic. The votes may have been fairly counted, but a democratic election requires much more than an honest vote count. As the U.S. tries to spread freedom in the Middle East, it needs to remember that elections are only part of democracy, and quite possibly a less important part than freedom of speech and association.

Hamas’ election does not demonstrate pursuing democracy in the Middle East is a mistake; it demonstrates elections are not enough to test the virtues of democracy or its effect there.

There is no democracy without freedom of speech and freedom of association. The Hamas election quite probably reflected the current preferences of the Palestinian voters, but those preferences do not reflect Palestinians’ response to an open discussion of the facts and choices voters face. No such open discussion exists in the Arab world except in Iraq — which is perhaps more than halfway to truly open civic debates.

The judgement that elections without free discussion are not democratic is not just some kind of theoretical perfectionism, or an attempt to impose our values and desires for political “luxuries.” When free discussion comes to a closed society, it can radically alter how citizens think about issues. The intense effort dictators devote to controlling discussion shows how important they consider public discussion to their survival.

Democratic discussion does not necessarily change public thinking right away. On fundamental and emotional issues people usually change slowly. But ideas have a way of sneaking up on people. When ideas once excluded by force are first aired, they may seem foreign and objectionable. But if they keep being posed by a few people they can gradually come to be taken seriously and eventually part of majority thinking.

One reason so many in the West were surprised by the Hamas victory and its demonstration that the majority of ordinary Palestinians do not “just want to take care of their families and live in peace” is that we assume most people are like us and would make the same kinds of basic choices we would make. This is a mistake for two reasons. First the culture of Palestinian Arabs is very different than ours — though it may be changing. Hearing mothers say how eager they are for their children to kill themselves by blowing up some Israeli pizza customers should give us a clue that those people are not just like us. Second, and more important for the question of democracy, public thinking after free discussion — which is what we assume — can be very different from public thinking in a society with a closed discussion.

While the Palestinian Authority claimed to be ready to live side-by-side with Israel — at least when it spoke in English — in the Palestinian public debate no organization could make the argument for living in peace with Israel without risking either violent private attack or punitive governmental action.

All people saw or heard in the papers, on TV, and in the schools, was that Israel was completely illegitimate, had no right to exist and was systematically raping and killing Palestinians. Challenging such slanders of Israel was perilous.

Arguments we assume would convince many or most Palestinians to accept peace have barely been publicly debated, so it hardly is a surprise they haven’t convinced a majority.

In the current Palestinian environment, if someone wants to argue for stopping the fight against Israel in order to create a Palestinian state in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, he has to admit he is proposes allowing Israel to keep stolen Arab property to which it has no moral claim. The official Palestinian position — which Palestinian politicians are not free to dispute — is that there were no Jewish kingdoms in the land before the birth of Islam and that the Jews came as colonial invaders in the last century. Proposing to give up one’s national heritage to robbers who have no claim of right is degrading because it sacrifices justice just to make life easier.

The facts that now cannot enter the public Palestinian discussion, but would become understood if there were a period of genuine democracy, are that the Jews of Israel are in many ways the heirs of ancient Jewish kingdoms that ruled various parts of the land for many centuries before the Arab and Muslim conquest. Jews and Palestinians are two peoples who have truthful but incompatible claims to the same land, a situation in which compromise is clearly a moral possibility, not a shameful yielding to brute force and denial of justice.

Democracy, like free markets, is not just about choosing among alternatives. Free markets create new products and new ways of providing needed services that no one thought of before. The loss of these unimagined possibilities may be the biggest cost of closed or shackled economies.

Similarly, the biggest effect of a lack of democratic discussion can be the ideas people never have a chance to consider — lack of which make any election nondemocratic — however close the election results are to the polls of public opinion.

While we watch — and try to help — the world’s fitful progress toward greater democracy we must remember that a “democratic election” can take place only in a democracy. Someone elected in what Natan Sharansky calls a “fear society” can be the real choice of people uninfluenced by an open discussion, but such a person was not “democratically elected.” He or she must always live with the possibility that if voters could listen to everyone they might choose someone else.

The only way a leader can fully gain the legitimacy of being the people’s real choice is to give the people the right to talk, to organize and to listen. “Democratically elected” is a supreme honor; we should not bestow it lightly or carelessly.

Max Singer is a founder and senior fellow of Hudson Institute and co-author of “The REAL World Order: Zones of Peace, Zones of Turmoil,” with Aaron Wildavsky.

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