Shlomo Avineri Speaks on Democracy and the Pursuit of Peace in the Middle East
Well-known Israeli scholar and political theorist offers a comparative view of the preconditions for successful democracies, predicts lengthy "time of troubles" in Iraq.
Published: Monday, October 18, 2004
"Of the twenty-two members of the Arab League . . . none has an elected government."
[Shlomo Avineri, professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and former director-general of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, offered a broad overview of the advances and setbacks for democratic regimes in the world and prospects for Middle East peace October 13. Dr. Avineri was the inaugural Younes and Soraya Nazarian Visiting Scholar in Israel Studies, a new program of the UCLA Internationl Institute. His lecture was held at the UCLA Faculty Center and chaired by Professor Leonard Binder, director of the Center for Near Eastern Studies. Following is a lightly edited transcript of Shlomo Avineri's remarks.]
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My title is "The Situation" because what I would like to do is to share with you on one hand some of our problems in Israel but also view it in a wider context, and this is the official title of the lecture, which has to do with peace and democracy in the Middle East. One of the aspects when you deal with the Middle East is that people often overlook the fact that when one tries to find a way in which Israel and its surrounding neighbors can find a modus vivendi or compromise or coexistence you are not only dealing on one hand with a very small country and on the other hand with a very large so-called Arab world, but you are also talking about a country on one hand and a number of countries on the other hand that have some very different political cultures and political institutions.
I am certainly not a Kantian in this respect or Wilsonian who believes that if you have democracy all over the world there will not be wars or that democracy is the best and only guarantee for not having wars. But certainly it does create a problem when you want to solve problems of legitimacy, problems of contending narratives, as we have between Israel and the Palestinians and the Arabs, when one country is a democracy, a very flawed democracy -- flawed is usually the normal adjective for democracy, I mean precisely because it is such a complex system; I don't have to tell you about another flawed democracy because you know about it much better -- but it is a democracy, and on the other hand a number of countries with very different sorts of governments, but none of them is a democracy.
And it seems to me that [this difference in institutions is significant] in order to understand some of the difficulties. Not in an alibi sense, saying that unless you have democracy in the Middle East you are not going to have peace. I mean, there are some people in Israel, I am not going to name them, but you know, one is a very famous former Russian dissident; another one is a former prime minister who happens to now be Minister of Finance -- I am not naming names -- but they make the case that unless there is democracy in all Arab countries there is not going to be peace.
Now this may be an honest argument. I don't think it is an honest argument, but this is not the argument I am going to make. But we have to admit that the gap in perceptions and information and knowledge does create a problem. And before trying to analyze it let me just give you an example of the last few days, which struck me.
How the Arab Media Covered the Taba Bombing
I was looking through one of the Internet websites at the way in which the terrorist attack in Taba was reported in the Arab press. And what you found, and again, there were distinctions, so I am generalizing a little bit, but what you found was a report that terrorists, and they use the term terrorists in the Egyptian or Syrian or Jordanian, and for that matter also Iranian, not an Arab country, press. They use the term terrorists. But for the first two days all their reports spoke about an attack on an Egyptian resort in Taba. Which is of course true. But none of them mentioned in the first few days (a) that there were Israeli casualties, and (b) that the whole raison d'etre of hitting Taba and some other places is because those are very popular places with Israelis, which the press all over the world reported because this is the case.
And then it dawned on me that on the other side of the hill, most Arab newspaper readers would not know that there was an attack on Israeli civilians. The same day one Palestinian girl was killed in Gaza by an Israeli tank, which is a terrible thing, and it should be reported. But this was reported. So what was reported is: terrorists struck at Egypt and Israelis killed a Palestinian girl.
Now if you do not have a free press, if you do not have a plurality of information, this is what gets in your mind, and stays in your mind. And this creates a problem when you then want to create a common discourse about compromise. Because if you do not have a more or less adequate, more or less objective, rendition of what is happening, how can you find out a middle way between the two positions?
The Spread of Democratic Governments in the Last Fifteen Years
So let me suggest to you what I would like to discuss. And it is a delicate issue to discuss and I am not sure I will find the right kind of balance in which to discuss it. So I would like to start with the comparative perspective.
In the last fifteen years we have seen all over the world developments toward democracy and democratization all over the world. In Central and Eastern Europe obviously. The demise of communism and the Soviet empire. In Latin America. In Sub-Saharan Africa. In Southeast Asia. Those were very diverse developments. Even within each of those regions the outcome was complex. Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic are success stories. Russia is not. Never mind Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, or the Caucasian republics, which are very problematic.
In Latin America we know there are ups and downs. A few years ago Argentina and Venezuela were cited as examples of transitions to democracy and market economy which were successful. Today, certainly in Venezuela, the picture is complex and it is still complex in Argentina and the jury is still out.
So, again, I don't want to go into Indonesia and the Philippines, etc. But we have seen developments toward democratization in practically every area in the world -- with differential rates of success, which have to do with local conditions, local histories, political mores, etc.
Islam Is Not Incompatible with Democracy
There is one area where this process -- and I don't take it as a global process or the wave of the future, but it is happening all over the place, in very different areas -- there is one area where this process did not take place. And this is not the Islamic world. It is the Arab world. And one has to make clear distinctions. Especially after 9/11 there has been a tendency to demonize Islam or to suggest if not to demonize, to suggest that Islam has something which is in its very ingredients disagreeing with democracy. This is both wrong and certainly morally objectionable to state in such a way.
No religion has anything to do with either democracy or nondemocracy. A hundred and fifty years ago both democrats and devout Roman Catholics would agree that Catholicism and democracy don't work together. Around 1850 this was the conventional wisdom of all democrats. The papacy, Catholicism, Roman Catholicism, Christianity doesn't live together with democracy. This was certainly the papal doctrine. A hundred and fifty years later, today Christian Democratic parties, which are usually Catholic, not exclusively but usually Catholic, are one of the pillars of European democracy. So, things can change.
And the same applies to Islam. Because if we look at the Islamic world, or the Islamic cycle, politically, we will find a complex picture, again differentiated but a picture that certainly flies in the face of the statement that democracy and Islam do not go together.
Let's start with Turkey. Turkey: not a simple country. Not a country not having its internal crisis. Not a country that did not go through some very violent convulsions, including some military coups d'etat. But you have a country which in the last seventy-five years has been trying to secularize, democratize. There are open elections. And perhaps the crowning success, paradoxically, of Kemalist modernization has been that under a Kemalist modernizing, democratizing constitution an Islamic roots party is now in power, and it appears to be playing by the rules of the game.
Not only does it appear to be playing by the rules of the game but for all kinds of reasons, some are intrinsic, some have to do with the attempt to enter the European Union, the government of Erdogan, the AKP party, has instituted a number of reforms, some of them constitutional, some of them administrative, in terms of the role of the army in politics, in terms of civil rights, in terms of the treatment of prisoners, in terms of minority rights, especially the rights of the Kurdish minority. Things which didn't happen under the so-called secular Kemalist parties in the past are now happening under an Islamic party. Again, the jury is still out, but it is happening.
You have contested elections, and there is no doubt that if in the next elections there will be a majority to vote out the current Islamic roots party of Prime Minister Erdogan, they will leave power peacefully in a democratic way. There is no doubt about it. So, democracy and Islam go together even with a party that is basically Islamic in much of its ideology.
You look at countries like Bangladesh and Indonesia -- very tenuous democracies, but still, there are elections. They are not ideal. It's tenuous. Bangladesh has had its series of political assassinations, Indonesia we still do not know. But the fact of the matter is, and this is very important to remember, that at least in the case of Bangladesh we are talking about one of the poorest countries in the world. Which means that the idea that democracy goes with relative affluence is not just a one-way street. You can have a multiparty system with a relatively free press, with relatively open elections, in a country which is really a basket case in many respects economically.
So to imagine that you just pump money into a country and then everybody becomes a capitalist and a democrat, this just doesn't work. Because the opposite is true in the case of Bangladesh.
Elements of Pluralism in Iran's Islamic Republic
And you have the case of Iran. As an Israeli, and I think today it is not just an Israeli concern, we all have concerns about a number of aspects of Iranian policy regarding possible nuclear proliferation. We all have concerns, and certainly as an Israeli I would be the last one to say good things about the Iranian system as a political system. However, if you look at Iran as an Islamic republic, and it is a self-defined Islamic republic, it has a number of internal institutional phenomena which one should not overlook.
First of all, there are contested elections in Iran. I am not going to call them democratic elections, because those are elections that are within an Islamic discourse. Every party and every candidate has to get the okay from the Council of Guardians to make sure that everybody is a good Muslim. However, within those limitations there are different contending candidates, there are different contending groups. It now appears that the last elections were a bit rigged in the conservative direction. But you know, you can rig elections only if you have them. The countries that don't have elections don't really need to do with them.
So you have a situation that is certainly open ended, and women have the right to vote. The story of the role of women in Iran cannot be subsumed just because of the terrible chador which we see. This is a terrible thing and it's awful. But this is not the only aspect of the story of Iran. Women vote. And, I have been told -- I am not an expert on Iran but I have been told -- that in the previous two presidential elections, Khatami, who appears now to be not very strong, let's say the more moderate, reforming president, he was put in power mainly by votes of women and younger voters -- in Iran they lowered the voting age to sixteen -- who wanted a more moderate Muslim. So it's all within an Islamic Muslim discourse, but it is contested.
The last and the next Iranian president was not elected and will not be reelected by 99.8 or 99.5 percent of the vote. This was a contested election. And there is not exactly freedom of the press, but there is some pluralism within the press, and there are a number of journalists who are in jail, which is a good sign. Because in Saudi Arabia I am not aware that there is one journalist in jail. Because you couldn't in the first place write the sort of thing which eventually would put you in jail. In the Soviet Union there were journalists in jail at the end of Brezhnev's time. There were no journalists in jail under Stalin, because nobody could write anything that would eventually put them in jail. One should see those things in this kind of context.
So without being another spokesman for the ayatollahs -- I am the last one to try to be -- when you look at Iran you see something which is a vibrant civil society where it appears that the wrong guys now have the upper hand but there is an internal discourse, there is something which may eventually bring up a much more open society where decisions are in a way representing an internal debate which is in part representative. Let me say even in parenthesis that in this self-styled Islamic republic according to its own constitution, religious minorities, recognized religious minorities -- god forbid not the Bahais, but Jews and Christians and Zoroastrians -- have a guaranteed seat in parliament. Now I don't envy the Jewish representative in the Iranian parliament when he has to stand up and speak about Israel and Zionism. But, however, it is a fact that within an Islamic republic there is some limited space for minorities.
In a country like Egypt there are no minorities. And when you write about the Coptic minority in Egypt, people tell you there are no minorities in Egypt. We are all Egyptians. Some happen to be Muslims, some happen to be Copts or Christians. When you say minority this is not kosher.
The Arab World: The One Exception of the Spread of Democracy
And here this brings me to the Arab world. In contradistinction to this very complex and in some cases encouraging picture -- not very encouraging but somehow encouraging picture in the non-Arab Muslim world, and I could mention also some other countries -- twenty-two members of the Arab League are very different. Those of us who know history know that when one speaks about German history and its complex role one uses the term the Sonderweg, the special route of German politics compared to France and England. I'm not sure one should speak of an Arab Sonderweg, that there is something unusual or something wrong about the Arab politics. But the fact of the matter is that of the twenty-two members of the Arab League, twenty-two Arab countries, none has an elected government. None. No head of government in any one of those Arab countries has been elected. You don't have it in any other region.
Furthermore, there hasn't been in any Arab country a serious attempt at democratization. There may be window dressing. You know, the Saudis, who are now under enormous pressure, both internally and externally, have announced a year ago they are going to have municipal elections. Okay. Since this was first announced, first of all, it became clear, they did announce later, that half of the members of the municipal councils will be elected and the other half will be appointed by the government. So that is one thing. Yesterday I understand it was announced that women are not going to participate in the election. Not only that they cannot be elected, they cannot participate in the voting. So big deal. This is not a democratic reform. This is window dressing.
No Arab country has seen, in the last fifteen years about which we have been talking, either a grassroots movement towards democracy or a reformist leader who is trying to reform the country in a democratic direction. To put it in other ways, there has not been an Arab Lech Walesa or an Arab Solidarity movement a la Poland, or an Arab Vaclav Havel, nor has there been an Arab Gorbachev, or an Arab Attaturk.
Now this is first of all a fact, which for reasons of political expediency and political correctness has not been always publicly acknowledged. Politically, at least until 9/11, the United States political establishment, be it Republican or Democrat, it doesn't matter, which has been very keen and with some success in promoting democracy by peaceful means all over the world, they did not push the point about the autocratic regime in Egypt or about what Saudi Arabia is.
Iran is a terrible theocracy by the American book. But Saudi Arabia has never been a terrible theocracy, they are your good friends. Oil, petrodollars, they supported the peace process, so they were the good guys in a way and the fact that there were some major problems, mainly dealing with civil rights and human rights, etc., was never really publicly discussed. After 9/11 this changed a little bit.
Among academics, and I should be even more careful when I speak about the academics, there seemed to be a little unease, pointing out that Arab countries, not that they are different but that there are certain things that do not happen in Arab countries that happen in every other kind of country. This sounds racist, this sounds like cultural determinism, this even sounds, which is much worse, Huntingtonian, you know, the clash of civilizations.
But it is not. First of all, it is a fact. And it has to be acknowledged. Because it has consequences. It has been recently acknowledged by a very courageous group of Arab intellectuals, most of them living in the West, who have produced over the last two years the UNDP Arab Human Development Report where for the first time Arab intellectuals wrote that there is a democratic deficit in the Arab world. They even have the courage to admit that while the Arab-Israeli conflict has exacerbated the deficit, this is not the cause of the deficit. It is a nuanced statement, but it was a very courageous statement. I think until now they have not come up with an analysis of why did it happen historically. I do not know the answer, and they certainly didn't come up with an idea what to do about it. And one should be very careful not to fall into the trap of saying, well, what you need is more economic development, you have to take those countries out of poverty. Some of the Arab countries are very poor and some are very rich. In none of them do you have democratic development.
Again, one of those mantras of not very critical political thinking says you have to have civil societies, NGOs. Okay, NGOs. Al Qaeda I guess is an NGO. I mean, a very fundamentalist mosque in Egypt, which is preaching against the government, its foundation is an NGO by any normal definition. So there are NGOs and there are NGOs. So NGOs by itself doesn't mean anything. The question is what is the ideology of those NGOs? What are their political aims?
I don't think I have an answer to why is it that the Arab countries have behaved in the last fifteen years, and this is not just the last fifteen years, there is a history behind it, differently from other countries in other regions -- including Islamic countries next door: Turkey or Iran. And this has consequences. Because if you do not have a democratic political culture, if governments are based on force -- and in one way or another all Arab governments are based on a combination of force exerted by armies and security services; in Arab parlance sometimes those regimes are called Muhabharat regimes, secret service or intelligence regimes -- then the ability to have an open discourse about public policy, about alternatives to foreign policy, about alternative narratives vis-à-vis Israel, vis-à-vis the United States, is not really there.
Preconditions that Favor Democracy -- The Eastern European Experience
It seems to me that one of the issues that has to be addressed, and it needs perhaps some courage and some thinking outside the box, is to ask the question why? Now when we look at Central and Eastern Europe and we look at the differentiated results in Eastern Europe I think we can have answers. Let me again start from the comparative level.
Fifteen years ago, or let's say twenty years ago, all Eastern European countries that were communist were more or less under the same kind of regime. Not exactly the same. The Russian communist regime and the Polish communist regime had differences regarding the role of small farmers, regarding the role of the church. But basically, all Eastern European communist countries from Poland to Russia to Albania to Romania, etc., etc., had a one-party state with a monopoly of power, with a command economy and no free press. They were much nearer to each other than any one of them was to a Western democracy. Fifteen years later, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, and perhaps one of the Baltic states, certainly Estonia, are today more or less functioning democracies with governments changing hands through elections, prime ministers being kicked out of office through elections, no military putsches, no coups d'etat. Problems here and there, sometimes serious, but they have made it. Also economically. Russia not.
What we have today in Russia is something which one could call, using some regional language in a different context, autocracy with a human face. I mean, obviously you have an autocrat, Putin, controlling more and more the political scene, the economy -- not Putin personally but the government. It's not an accident that the portrait that hangs in Putin's office is that of Peter the Great. It is autocracy with a human face because there are no concentration camps, people don't disappear overnight, there are no show trials. When Putin and the government try to put an end to the power of some, what was called the oligarchs, the robber barons of Russian industry, the Russian economy, they don't kill them. They don't deport them to Siberia. They make life miserable for them, and then, within a few months they find their way to a villa in Spain or in Herzliya. Khodorkovsky is in jail, and sooner or later he will get out of jail -- or he gets fifteen years. But this is not the Soviet system, okay? It's a nasty system but it is not the Soviet system. Autocracy with a human face.
Now, why? Why is Russia different? I think we can know the answer. Russia is not a freely functioning democracy because of a lack of a civil society tradition, lack of a local tradition of institutional representative government. In countries like Poland and Hungary and the Czech Republic you have had for many many centuries, precommunism, prefascism, representative institutions, much more democratic in Czechoslovakia than in Poland and Hungary, but there were representative institutions there.
You have had the autonomy of the church in different ways. You have had the autonomy of the universities. You have had relatively -- relatively -- liberal attitudes toward the Jews, which is a yardstick. It is not the criterion but it is a yardstick. It tells you something. Russia did not have, for centuries, this kind of history. There is no history of civil society in Russia. Russia never had elected municipal councils. Universities in Russia in tsarist times were instruments of the government, not autonomous corporations in the Western European sense of what a university is.
The Russian Orthodox Church has been, at least since Peter the Great, but even before then because of Byzantine history, an instrument of the government. So once communism disappeared or imploded, there was very little to which you could go back. And when you look at the debates in Poland and Hungary and the Czech Republic once communism imploded, you could see how there was a usable past to which you could revert. Some of it was a little constructed. Some of it was a little romanticized. Some of it was a little invented. We know that traditions are being invented or reinvented. But there was something to invent. There was a Polish Sejm, there were Hungarian representative institutions. Certainly in the Bohemian lands there was a long tradition of civil society and religious pluralism going back if you wish to Jan Hus and the Reformation.
In Russia if you wanted to go back you had Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and you had the attempt in 1917 that lasted five months to have a constitutional liberal government, which also imploded. So we know that you have to go back to history, to culture, not in a deterministic way but in the way of trying to find causality, and causality and determinism are not the same.
The Palestinian Authority Is Modeled on the Other Arab States
Again, this is the kind of work that one has to do regarding the Arab world. And this brings me to two more specific cases. One is the total failure of the Palestinians to create anything else than another Muhabharat state. After Oslo, among the many other hopes which unfortunately went wrong there was a common feeling, sort of conventional wisdom, which was expressed both by Israelis, occasionally by Palestinians, by Western observers, that the Palestinians, because they had been exposed to Israel, not only to Israeli occupation but also to the institutions of Israeli society, that they had lived next to it, that they know what a supreme court is, because they have used it. They know what a multiparty system is, because they have courted some of the Israeli parties. They know what the political game is. It was expected that this will be somehow reflected in the way their own institutions develop. This didn't happen.
What you have, beyond everything else -- I am not going to discuss the issues of terrorism, etc. -- is that Arafat became a typical Arab potentate, on a par with whoever rules Syria or Egypt or for that matter Iraq before Saddam fell. Civil society disappeared. The fact is that there should have been elections to a Palestinian parliament three years or four years ago. It didn't happen. Nobody makes a point about it. You can very easily, of course, accuse the Israeli occupation. But that is not the point. If you want to have elections you have elections. You make the election even a battle cry against occupation. There are ways to do that. Those things have happened. They had elections in Russian Georgia and Lithuania under Soviet occupation and they challenged the Soviet power, which was using tanks. So you can do those things. No.
The point is that Arafat's rule is based on five or six security services which he continues to control, exactly the way that it is in Egypt, as in Syria. This is a failure that one should realize. To imagine that the Palestinians, who of course are in a much more difficult situation than any other Arab nation, because they are under Israeli occupation, will be able to develop a democratic system was perhaps far fetched. The point is it did not happen.
The War in Iraq
And the other example, of course, is Iraq. So that I will not be misunderstood, I think the war against Iraq was justified. Not because there were weapons of mass destruction. I didn't know whether there were. But I did know that Saddam did use weapons of mass destruction in the past. He used poison gas against his own Kurdish population. He used poison gas in the war against Iran. He attacked Iran. He attacked Kuwait. He attacked Saudi Arabia. He attacked Israel. Somebody with this record should be taken out of business. If it can be done by the United Nations, so be it. If not, let's do a citizen's arrest. And this is exactly what the United States did, a citizen's arrest. Not exactly legitimate, but absent a legitimate arrest you do a citizen's arrest.
Somebody like Saddam should have been taken out and it was a good thing for everybody. That the consequences are problematic is a different story. The consequences of the fall of Nazi Germany was the introduction of communism for fifty years in half of Europe. Let us remember that. Was this an argument for not putting Hitler down, or creating an alliance with Hitler against the Soviets? Well, some British fascists thought so, but this is not our conventional wisdom.
But, having said that, the way in which the United States administration -- and practically everybody else in America -- thought that after Saddam, even if you were ambivalent about the war, there is a chance of democracy in Iraq and that you can create democracy, either through an American occupation or through the United Nations, which has been great in creating democracies in places like Cambodia and other places. . . . I mean, what are we talking about? It was a total pipe dream. To imagine that in a country like Iraq, given its history, given the fact that this was a country ruled for seventy years by a Sunni minority that was crushing the Shia majority and the Kurdish minority, that you can sort of by hocus pocus after an American occupation have democracy flower there and become a beacon to other countries in the Middle East -- this is totally unrealistic.
This is not just because the Bush administration failed. The Bush administration failed. But anybody who tells you that he or she knows how to work out democracy in Iraq in the next few years is just telling you a bunch of pipe dreams. Because if you do not have a role model, a legitimate Arab regime that is democratic, how can you create it under the most difficult conditions, which are the conditions of Iraq?
Because what you have in Iraq, and one has to be very clear about it, Iraq was a country that was put together in the 1920s by the Brits because of their imperial interests. And they stitched together three provinces of the old Ottoman Empire. One in the south, Basra, with a Shiite majority; one in the center with a Sunni majority; and one in the north with a Kurdish minority. And the Kurds are not Arabs, one should always remember that. The only way this country was run and probably could have been run from the way in which it was put together, when the Brits put the Sunnis, a minority, in power, was by an iron fist.
The Sunni Minority Is Waging War Now to Continue Its Hegemonic Rule
And Saddam Hussein was only the most extreme of the Sunni hegemonic dictators of Iraq. All governments in Iraq were authoritarian dictatorships of the Sunni minority against and over the Shia majority and the Kurdish minority. And what we see now, and this is what is called terrorism in Iraq -- with one exception which is Shia and is Moqtada Sadr in Najaf -- everything that we see today is Sunni attempts to hit Kurds and Shias and Americans and somehow try to cling to their hegemonic rule. The people who are doing this, and I have no intelligence information but my common sense tells me that the people who are now doing all that terrorism, this is Saddam's war against the Americans.
The war which probably everybody thought would be a frontal war, the Republican Guard fighting the American war machine, where they would have no chance doing it, didn't happen. That's why the victory was so sudden and so great, and so easy, relatively speaking. Because the army did not disintegrate. The people didn't go home to the villages as the New York Times naively wrote. The people went out into the underground. And the people who are trying now to do suicide attacks or terrorist attacks were trained as guerrilla fighters in the year and a half when Saddam and his regime knew that sooner or later America is going to attack. Everybody thought that Saddam is either waiting or is waiting for a frontal war. This was not going to happen and it did not happen.
And in the present situation to imagine the Sunnis are going to peacefully allow the Shiite majority to take over Iraq is unrealistic. It is equally unrealistic to imagine that the Shia majority, now somewhat empowered and emboldened, is going to sit by and allow the Sunni minority again to rule over it. Which means that I do not think that in the foreseeable future there is going to be a democratic Iraq or there is going to be any sort of coherent Iraqi government. You may have a very lengthy period of what in Russia is usually called the time of troubles. After a great leader dies, the time of troubles. It may be civil war, it may be latent civil war.
But democracy in Iraq is a pipe dream. And it doesn't matter where you stand politically in the debate, this has to be said publicly: there are no foundations for that.
Prospects for Peace between Israel and the Arab States
Which leaves us in Israel, and this is my last comment, with great problems. It's not that we live in a violent neighborhood. We live in a society where it has to make peace and we have to make peace, and eventually there will be peace. I don't think immediately, but eventually there will be peace between a country where every step is being carried out by the ups and downs of a democratic process [and the Arab states]. You have now a prime minister, Sharon, who has been moving against what he himself has believed in the last thirty years, and what he himself said two years ago. He was against building the fence. He was against dismantling settlements. And he's doing it now. And I think this is in the right direction, because, absent real chances for peace, the present status quo is unacceptable and you have to move towards de-escalation, disengagement, and we should be getting out of each other's hair. And this can be done only unilaterally at the moment.
But Sharon has lost his parliamentary majority. He may stitch it back together in one way or another, but every step is done under the scrutiny of the Supreme Court, with great unease about how do you deal with settlers. I mean you are not just going to evacuate people violently because this is the law. You know you have to negotiate, you have to empathize, you have to compensate. This is done in a democratic context. How does such a society deal with a society, or societies, where those things do not exist?
Again, I am not suggesting one should wait for peace until the Arab world democratizes. I do not think the Arab world will democratize soon. But this certainly is a problem. And among the many impediments that all of us are aware of, why it is so difficult to make peace between Israel and the Arab countries and Israel and the Palestinians -- and we know the issues of sovereignty and territoriality and legitimacy -- this is also an impediment which we should factor in. This is not just the Norwegians and the Swedes sitting together and deciding where the boundaries are going to be.
Thank you very much.
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Shlomo Avineri teaches political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Dr. Avineri has served as Director-General of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was a member of the National Democratic Institute's (Washington, DC) international teams of observers to the first post-communist elections in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Estonia. He is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times Opinion page and is the author of numerous books and articles on Middle Eastern affairs, political theory, and international affairs. In 1979 Avineri was a member of the joint Egyptian-Israeli commission that drafted the cultural and scientific agreement between the two countries.