Guarded Hope

That spirit is tested each day. The deliberations at Oslo heralded a “new era” in the region – a new era that in time was undermined by the second Intifada, or what more accurately might be called the latest stage in the ongoing war against the Jewish state.
Still, hope springs eternal. Both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agree that there must be a halt to acts of violence. If this understanding holds, it will have far reaching implications for America’s role in the region.
Needless to say, there are many reasons for justifiable skepticism. But if this time it might be different, the Bush Doctrine is the reason why. By overturning totalitarian regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq and emphasizing the need for democratization as the forerunner to regional reform, President Bush has set in motion a tidal wave of activity that even the intractable Palestinian forces may not be able to resist.
In June 2002 President Bush made it clear that any resolution of the Palestinian question would be dependent on democratization in the territories, the elimination of terrorism and the introduction of free markets.
As a first step in remaking the status quo, Prime Minister Sharon has vowed to disengage from Gaza, a potentially turbulent event with more than 8,000 Jewish settlers to be expelled from their homes.
As difficult as the withdrawal from Gaza may be, the anticipated next step, a readjustment of the Israeli presence in Judea and Samaria – the West Bank – is sure to be even more problematic.
There are more than 240,000 settlers on the West Bank. What started out as sleepy villages have been converted over time into thriving cities. To assume, as those in the media often do, that these are pioneers in trailers is to completely misread reality.
The land area of any future Palestinian state will include some portion of the West Bank. Israel will most certainly oppose a return to the 1967 Green Line. The Palestinians will demand as much as they can get, arguing that thanks to a reduction in terror, Israel’s need to retain population centers in order to monitor key roadways is unnecessary. By any comparison, the withdrawal from Gaza is a cake walk compared to what will transpire when the West Bank becomes the issue.
While hope is in the air, a genuine accord remains elusive. Abbas is certainly not a Jeffersonian, but he is probably not Arafat either. And if through the course of events he does turn out to be Arafat in an Armani suit, Israel would be justified in crushing him and the Hamas terrorists once and for all.
For Israelis, hope is mixed with a large dose of apprehension. Will Abbas shut down the arms-smuggling pipeline that runs under the Sinai into the terrorist arsenals of Gaza? Can he control Hamas, which at least for the time being has given him the benefit of the doubt? Will he settle for a compromise in the West Bank that acknowledges areas of Israeli control?
Will he formally recognize Israel and dismantle the hate machinery in Palestinian schools and society that promotes anti-Semitism? Can he control the corruption? Will he come to grips with a culture of lies and nihilism?
These questions deserve answers and in time we will have them. But looming in the background is President Bush, who has altered the regional framework. The Middle East is not the place it was before 9/11. The Bush Doctrine has roiled the sea of complacency.
Some of the president’s critics contend that using democracy as an instrument for stability will not work because democracy is intrinsically unstable. Others argue that the potential for democracy and the requisites for democracy are not the same. Still others view the president’s claims for democracy as a form of utopianism, bound to increase hope and accelerate failure.
That said, there are signs that the president’s policy is working, notwithstanding the criticism.
Surely the vote in Iraq was a remarkable development and a clear sign that the people of that embattled nation wish to participate in the affairs of state. Even ardent critics admit as much, though they rarely give President Bush credit for the outcome. In their biased eyes it is a manifestation of deus ex machina or spontaneous combustion – anything but Bush.
Egypt’s Mubarak now talks openly about the need for democratization. On an Israeli television program an Egyptian politician who intends to run against Mubarak said Egypt has much to learn from Israel. He proceeded to discuss the openness of Israeli politics and the virtues of democracy.
Lebanon’s pro-Syrian leaders resigned when crowds marched in the streets shouting “Syria Out.” Iranian university students interrupted an address by President Khatami, shouting “Don’t lie to us” and “No more lies.” First a few, then some more, and finally just about everyone in the auditorium was shouting. Khatami could not continue.
Solzhenitsyn once remarked that if the totalitarians covered the earth in cement there would be a crack and from it would emerge a plant. Despite all of the efforts to control free expression, despite the gulags and the secret police, despite radical mullahs and terror groups, the desire for democracy is inextinguishable.
This is what President Bush is counting on. And the tyrannies in the Arab world have received the message. One prominent resident of the West Bank told me that President Bush has caused a veritable tsunami in Palestinian political circles. If Abbas seems more conciliatory than Arafat, that can be explained, he said, by Bush’s words and actions.
Can the Bush Doctrine spread like political ripples across the region? Is this democratic impulse sustainable? Can democracy take hold in a region where the rule of law and individual rights haven’t taken root? Is Islam compatible with democracy?
The one thing that is clear beyond any shadow of a doubt is that Bush’s call for the spread of democracy is having an effect. I am reasonably confident that from these small signs of openness and rebellion, big changes will emerge. It may not happen in my lifetime, but it will happen.

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