Two remarks about democracy (in the Middle East):
1. The details of a private criminal charge, which was filed a few months ago with the International Court of Justice in The Hague, were published on July 24 in the Israeli media. A riveting document, it provides a rare behind-the-scenes peek into Palestinian politics and an up-to-date picture of the democracy spanning from Ramallah to Nablus and Jenin, as well as Gaza.
The lawsuit was filed by Mohammed Dahlan, formerly a senior Fatah official and one of the chiefs of the mighty Palestinian security forces in the Gaza Strip, against none other than Chairman of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Mahmoud Abbas, aka Abu Mazen. The court in The Hague normally does not deal with such lawsuits, but Dahlan, who had done his homework, received special permission from the UN Security Council to file his lawsuit.
Until the military seizure of the Gaza Strip by Hamas, Dahlan was an all-powerful Fatah official in the Gaza Strip. As chief of the security agencies, he dominated the border crossings and power centers in the Strip. Having garnered great clout among Palestinian leadership, he was elected to the Palestinian parliament in 2006. A member of the Palestinian Authority government, he served as minister of the interior, minister for civilian affairs and national security adviser. He was also a member and spokesperson of the Fatah Central Committee.
As surreal as it may sound, Dahlan enjoyed a prestigious standing in Israel as well. Close to many left-wing activists in Israel, he oversaw the ties between the Israeli and the Palestinian defense establishments for an extended period of time, and was a highly regarded figure by the Israeli military. He was a familiar face in many Israeli households due to his frequent appearances in the media and his occasional interviews in rudimentary Hebrew, which he had acquired while serving time in Israeli prisons.
Dahlan symbolized the "new Palestinian" who is willing to let bygones be bygones for the sake of the future — one who shoots the breeze in Hebrew and does not carry historic traumas on his back — a person with whom business can be done and peace achieved.
For a long time he was considered a contender to replace PA Chairman Yasser Arafat and was one of the champions of the "new generation" of Palestinian leadership, from which salvation was to emerge, perhaps even the much-coveted arrangement with Israel.
In order to sue Abu Mazen, Dahlan — the previous golden boy of the PA — retained the services of two Arab-Israeli lawyers. Domiciled principally in Dubai, Dahlan is said to be very close to the local crown princes. Keeping a very high standard of living, he gallivants with relative freedom between the capitals of the region (whose numbers keep shrinking).
In a singular way, the lawsuit he filed against Abu Mazen "lifts the curtain" over the face of the much venerated Palestinian democracy. The details cited in the document remind the reader of the fact that Abu Mazen was elected to office eight years ago and that his term has long expired. New elections are not in the offing, Gaza has cut itself off from the West Bank and the Palestinians — both in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank — are living in a kind of legal lacuna, with a leadership vacuum and questionable governance.
There is no single country in the West where Abu Mazen could have gone on leading or serving under the current conditions without the intervention of the local supreme court. But in the PA — so it seems — anything goes. And in the United States and Europe, Abu Mazen is said to be the "great white hope" of the Palestinians and the negotiations, indeed the entire region.
The absurdity reaches its peak when it turns out that all the good things that are being said of Abu Mazen are correct. It turns out that in the Middle East, there is no contradiction between good or bad; the two go hand in hand quite well.
According to Dahlan, Abu Mazen is a "corrupt despot," a "forceful dictator" who stops at nothing in order to push aside his political rivals, including the use of smear campaigns, casting aspersions, banishment and personal persecution — all of which Abu Mazen allegedly resorted to against Dahlan.
In the preamble of the lawsuit, Dahlan writes, "It is no secret that the Palestinian Authority and its leadership are tainted by corruption on a grand scale. Its various agencies violate human rights in the areas under their control. The violation of human rights, the corruption, the mismanagement, the lack of separation between the various branches and the lack of independence of the courts in the territories have all been criticized by many local and international bodies."
Later in the document, over many impressively detailed pages, Dahlan elaborates on the persecution campaign that he, his family and his associates were subjected to by Abu Mazen and his proxies. He describes how he was robbed of his position and possessions, how his parliamentary immunity was revoked, how he was smeared and vilified and how he was subjected to many groundless accusations without due process.
The picture portrayed by Dahlan is a serious one. To use his language, "It is an unassailable proof not only of the alarming extent of corruption and tyranny that is pervasive in the Palestinian Authority and its leadership, but also of the fact that law, justice and constitutional and statutory institutions in the Palestinian Authority carry no importance or significance. The Authority is a tyrannical rule of one person, to wit Abu Mazen, and the institutions of the Authority, its budgets and international ties are nothing but tools in the service of Mahmoud Abbas and his family, and their narrowest economic, political and personal interests."
Anyone familiar with the reality in the territories knows that Dahlan is illustrating an accurate picture. Notwithstanding, this does not necessarily make him the good guy in his strife with Abu Mazen. The comic relief in this affair rests in the fact that it was not that long ago that Dahlan himself was part and parcel of the system, when he served as security chief in Gaza.
He is the one who oversaw the penitentiaries that are not linked to any judicial system. Thousands of armed men in the Gaza Strip obeyed orders at his will. And like most senior Palestinian officials, he, too, dabbled in business while pulling the political and diplomatic strings, and he actually did quite well.
Dahlan was part of the system that he is now pitted against. On the other hand, you can certainly say that since the former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad started rebuilding the legal and governmental institutions in the West Bank, the situation has improved immeasurably, including the issue of human rights. It's possible that the Palestinians are inching toward a new reality, but Dahlan's lawsuit against Abu Mazen proves that this is going to be a very long journey.
Incidentally, the West — Europe, the US and the UN — is more than familiar with this state of affairs. Yet this does not alter the West's perception of the Palestinians as some kind of an Arab nature reserve, a small island of democracy and sanity in a big, fiery sea of tribal wars, despots, dictators and murderous regimes. By the way, that is correct too.
Relatively speaking, the PA is indeed a calm bubble and a cradle of human rights. When you look northward at Syria or Lebanon, or southward at Egypt, and eastward at Iraq and Iran, you find out that Ramallah is the best.
Furthermore, the US and Europe have had a hard time containing the revolution in Egypt, which some regard as a military coup, in light of the violation of democratic principles and the ouster of a president who was elected in ostensibly democratic elections. The British have suspended arms shipments to Egypt while the Americans are squirming, and so far have called off the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets.
If they had judged the Palestinians by the same standards they are judging the Egyptians, it could very well be that they would have arrived at the same conclusions, or maybe even more serious ones. This only goes to show that everything is in the eyes of the beholder, and it all depends on a certain angle. If you're in Cairo, you might be deemed a murderer, a tyrant and oppressor of the masses. But if you perpetrate the same acts in Ramallah, your image as an enlightened, moderate, peace-seeking leader will not be tarnished in the slightest.
2. Barring a last-minute unforeseen event, on Sunday, July 28, the government of Israel will approve the release of Palestinian prisoners (an Israeli gesture to Abu Mazen owing to the resumption of the negotiations). It is also expected to approve Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's "Basic Law: Referendum." This is a law that would mandate that a referendum be held whenever Israel is required to evacuate sovereign territory. A loose translation of this law means that the authority to decide international peace agreements is transferred from the Knesset — Israel's elected parliament — to the people.
Israel has yet to hold its first referendum. It has no culture of holding referendums. It is not Switzerland, which lets its citizens decide every issue, however big or small. Israel has a representational parliamentary government. The Knesset resolved and approved the peace accords with Egypt and Jordan as well as the Oslo Accords. When going to war, the Israeli prime minister does not need the good graces of the Knesset. He can wage war alone, provided he has a majority in the cabinet.
And all of a sudden — a referendum.
This is passing the buck. Panicked by the heavy flak from the right for releasing the Palestinian prisoners and stressed out by the resumption of the negotiations and the perils they could entail for his administration, Netanyahu decided to steal the thunder, change the agenda and divert public attention to the fact that he is willing to let the people make the decision if and when "pieces of the homeland" in Judea and Samaria have to be evicted.
On a practical level, this is a wise political move that takes the pressure off of Netanyahu's slouched shoulders, providing the HaBayit HaYehudi party with a pretext to stay in the government until the very last minute, while pacifying the right and boosting the left and center.
The widespread belief in Israel is that any peace agreement the government entertains will win a landslide victory in a referendum. This is an assumption that has yet to be proven correct, except for the occasional polls, especially in view of the fact that on such occasions the right goes to the ballot boxes in droves while the left takes it easy in cafés.
Yet there's more to it. Many in Israel believe that if the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had taken the Oslo Accords to a referendum, it would have (as expected) won a landslide victory (before the onset of the murderous wave of Hamas terrorism), and it is quite possible that he would not have been assassinated. The fact that the Oslo agreements were adopted through some political conjuncture in the Knesset helped the extreme right-wing in Israel and the messianic rabbis fuel the wave of incitement against Rabin that culminated in three gunshots by Yigal Amir, which ended the life of an Israeli prime minister and which many believe also executed the peace process and its chances for success.
By bringing the referendum law to the Knesset, Netanyahu proves that even Israeli democracy can be maneuvered and subjected to reality. It renders the Knesset irrelevant, ignoring the form of government that has been in place in Israel for the last 65 years, passing the authority from the 120 elected Knesset members into the hands of millions of eligible voters who will be exposed to vocal, populist and blustery campaigns before casting their decision.
This is a new and bizarre chapter in the annals of Israel's vibrant and surprising democracy. Only time will tell whether this has been a good or bad chapter.
Ben Caspit is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers, and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel.