Inlaying A Democratic Orientation In Palestine


Inlaying a democratic orientation – the ‘culture’ of democracy – is something quite different from instituting a set of dry technical rules alone. It's one thing to ensure legal protection for a free press; quite another for a society – in practice – to proffer and fully tolerate radically different viewpoints. One thing to ensure women may serve in professional positions; quite another for parents to afford their daughters the same rights and independence as their sons. One thing for a populace to accept laws punishing corruption; quite another for members to agree the esteemed head of their local clan be charged and tried. Or that their village – controlled by a few select clans for centuries – allow members from ‘outside’ clans to reside there.

But genuine democracy simply doesn't take hold when undemocratic home or community practice is widespread; indeed, all successful democracies are highly democratic within their societies. And the Bermigo Plan would have to deliver here too, else there could be a steady rollback in the norms of Palestine’s ‘state democracy’ as soon as the Western teams exited. Even after the 25-year term, a dangerous spiral backwards could still occur.

The Palestinians, though, would begin the Bermigo program with a head start. Top of the list is they are mostly a secular society, and when money is unconstrained by religious practice, the culture of a Beirut or Istanbul emerges – not a Riyadh or a Cairo. There has been some increase in religiosity in Palestine over the last few years, but it’s not yet clear how deep-set the change has been.

Interestingly, polls show that religious citizens of Arab societies are as open to democratic government as these societies’ secular citizens. That hardly says much – only small minorities in both sectors support genuine democracy – but it’s an interesting trend. (The primary researcher in the field is Prof Shibley Talhami, Brookings Institute). The key question for a plan like Bermigo is whether enough democracy could be initially ‘swallowed’ by Palestine’s citizenry for full democracy to kick in once the plan has been humming for a decade. The Bermigo venture would run for 25 years – its lengthy term, not least of all, for that very reason.

Also aiding in establishing a democracy 'on schedule' would be Palestine’s compact size. If Ramallah, for example, turned into an attractive hub of entertainment – it already has a large college community – Palestinian kids would flock to it. Remember, under Bermigo’s plan, Palestine would be networked by a modern transportation system within a few years.

The entire West Bank lies within 60 kilometers of Ramallah, which would be only one of several bustling cities. So, few Palestinian teenagers would grow up without exposure to a city’s bright lights, provocative press and the attendant pleasures that entertain kids – and alarm hapless, conservative parents – in all democratic societies.

Palestine’s democracy would get a further boost from its population's full exposure and easy access to cultures from around the world. In the Bermigo venture, tens of thousands of Westerners would be living in Palestine – and amongst ordinary Palestinians, not in secluded compounds.

Plus, tens of thousands of foreign troops, nearly all from democratic countries, would interact with the local population. The interaction, of course, would be closely regulated by commanders; drinking and clubbing outside bases would be permitted only at specified resort hotels. But less problematic activities of servicemen – simply dining out, shopping, going to a movie – would give life in Palestine a very cosmopolitan touch. Plus, these consumers would provide a ready market for a variety of goods, as local vendors, of both high and low culture, raced to get a foothold.

This same democratic lifestyle would inevitably filter into the Palestinians’ own art, culture and way of life at home. Note that there has never been suspicion of Westerners in Palestine – and zero antagonism towards them; the Palestinian public has long interfaced with countless officials from the UN, the EU, and rest of the world, and long mingled with journalists from around the globe. And note well that neither the West Bank – nor Gaza – has ever been an Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, or Somalia, etc re personal security for Westerners. Nor ever remotely resembled a Saudi Arabia on probity.

Also provident for the steady embrace of democracy inside Palestinian homes is the era we live in. In a bustling Palestine, the internet would connect all Palestinian kids to the wider world; this tool for exposing curious youngsters (and adults) to the ideas and tastes of their Western counterparts simply didn’t exist a generation ago. As the standard of living for all Palestinian communities was raised by the enormous investment of the Bermigo Plan, access to the internet would become as common as the household telephone.

Another enormous leg-up for democracy in Palestine are today’s Arab cable-TV stations. The two prime stations, Al Jazeera and Al Arabia, are already watched by over 94% of the Palestinian public (according to surveys conducted by PSPCR). While both stations have a decidedly anti-Western bent, they also delight in hosting vociferous and provocative debates within the Arab world. Israel may be intensely disliked, but even she gets backhanded compliments regularly from participants. “Even Israel allows more..” or “The reason Israel succeeds and we don’t is Israel rewards free competition, while we stifle our..” are common refrains permeating Palestinian society. And a critical first step towards a free press.

In time, then, local horizons would expand and different voices would start using Palestine’s mandated free press without fear. Exposure to provocative viewpoints would become routine – albeit, only gradually over the purposely long 25-year Bermigo enterprise.

Still, the particular Western team assigned to ‘oversee democracy’ in Palestine would have to play things very smart. The hardest task in introducing real democracy where it has never existed before is ensuring you don’t upset the apple cart before the wheels are smoothly turning. If you leave this to market forces, you’ll get the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, some clown will seek protection under a free press to set up a porno shop in downtown Nablus. And on the other hand, serious authors or documentary producers who live in an intolerant – even violent – society will be in no hurry to be the first on the block to risk their necks.

The mechanics the relevant Western team would employ in installing all the different elements of democracy will be described in detail in another article on this website. But readers should already have a sense that while the depth and breadth of the challenge should not be underestimated (as many eager leftists are wont to do), neither should it be exaggerated (as is the habit of a dismissive, equally ignorant right wing).