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Jackson Diehl

Sidestepping Palestinian Democracy

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, December 20, 2004; Page A23

President Bush's new demand that an Israeli-Palestinian peace process begin with the establishment of a Palestinian democracy has met little resistance in Washington or in Ramallah, where authorities are busy organizing two sets of elections -- one for president and another for municipal offices -- in the next three weeks. But it is viewed with pervasive skepticism in a seemingly unlikely quarter: the Middle East's only current democracy, Israel.

At a conference of Israeli and American politicians and thinkers organized by the Brookings Institution's Saban Center this month, a mention of Bush's precondition prompted an outpouring of doubts from all sides of the Israeli political spectrum. Some said a genuine Palestinian democracy was unfeasible in the near future. Others dismissed Natan Sharansky, the Russian-refusenik-turned-Israeli-politician, who has done much to shape Bush's position, as an unrelenting hawk who touts democracy as a clever way of opposing all concessions to the Palestinians. Good questions rang out: Should Israel have refused to sign its peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan because they were not democracies? Can it afford to wait until the Palestinians reach Western levels of freedom, if the leaders who succeed Yasser Arafat offer to end violence and agree to a reasonable settlement?

Marwan Barghouti (Brennan Linsley -- AP)

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Some of the Israelis were particularly concerned by the possibility that the Palestinian presidential election scheduled for Jan. 9 would result in a victory for Marwan Barghouti, a 45-year-old West Bank militant now serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison for organizing violent attacks in the uprising that began four years ago. There was little doubt that a Barghouti defeat of Mahmoud Abbas, the 69-year-old interim leader who recently condemned armed resistance to Israel, would wreck the chances for a new peace process: Barghouti continues to defend violence as a legitimate means for forcing Israel out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

As it turns out, the Israelis needn't have worried. Last week Barghouti, under heavy pressure from the Palestinian political establishment, withdrew his candidacy. He thereby ensured that Abbas, who is regarded by both Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as an acceptable partner, will succeed Arafat as Palestinian president. He also made certain that the Jan. 9 election will not be a genuine contest between Palestine's hawks and doves but a cakewalk for the moderates.

Is this a good thing? If Bush decides that Abbas's prearranged landslide satisfies his political precondition, and commits his re-inaugurated administration to brokering a deal between Abbas and Sharon, then Barghouti's retreat may look fortunate. Most Israelis won't complain: In fact, they'll breathe a sigh of relief at having avoided an Arab and European campaign portraying a president-elect Barghouti as a Nelson Mandela and demanding his release.

The problem will come when and if Abbas and Sharon ever sit down to talk about the two-state solution Bush says he wants to achieve in the next four years. As he withdrew last week, Barghouti delivered a poison pill: a list of 18 demands on the Palestinian leadership. Most would kill any talks before they start, such as the stipulations that Israel withdraw from all Palestinian territories before negotiations begin, that there be no partial or temporary agreements, and that "the principle of armed resistance" be preserved.

Abbas would surely reject most of the list. What's more, had Barghouti made them his election platform, he might well have lost, though probably narrowly: pre-withdrawal polls showed the two leaders about even. But can Abbas afford to reject this militant agenda, which Barghouti portrays as the true legacy of Arafat, without the mandate he would have earned by winning a head-to-head contest?

Probably the new president will press ahead, but he will be weak -- and Barghouti, like the Islamic militants in Hamas, will portray him as unrepresentative of most Palestinians. Israelis will lose something, too. They won't know themselves whether the accommodating Abbas, who already has banished anti-Israeli incitement from Palestinian television and is pushing the militants to declare a cease-fire, represents his people -- or whether they still support the violence of Arafat and Barghouti. One American veteran of Mideast diplomacy counseled the Israelis at that Saban conference to hope for a Barghouti candidacy. "Let's find out," he said, "what's in Palestinian hearts." The truth could have been bitter, but it also could have been galvanizing. Now, we won't know it.

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