Friday, May 17

Democracy and Distrust

The most significant development in the Middle East situation in the last few days has been Yasser Arafat's pledge that he will hold local elections in the next few months, which are to be followed by parliamentary, and presidential elections next year. Of course, as a commodity, Mr. Arafat's word has been significantly devalued by a series broken promises and is currently trading in the "highly speculative" realm of subordinated K-Mart bonds and the Argentine peso. As I see it, the news is, at best, mixed.

Ideally, if all the planets are aligned and TMers everywhere are thinking really, really happy thoughts about it, the elections could prove to be good news. In this ideal future, the elections are held, Arafat loses, and Israel is given the perfect excuse in the eyes of the world (it already has the perfect excuse--complicity in terrorism--but the eyes of the world happen to be blind to it) never to deal with him again. The biggest problem with this scenario is that the elections are at least a year a way, which is way too long to expect Israel to wait before deciding whether or not it is going to give Arafat an umpteenth chance to prove his trustworthiness. In fact, it is difficult to regard the election pledge as anything more than an attempt to con the European nations and the appeasement crowd in America (who appear to be tripping over themselves in their eagerness to be taken in again) into pressuring Israel to maintain diplomatic ties with charmin' Arafat.

The problem is that, even ignoring the probability that the promise of elections is just another desperate bluff by a man more skilled at maintaining power than wielding it, the possibility of clean, fair elections is about as tangible as a West Bank desert mirage. If Newark can't hold clean elections, what chance does Nablus have? Arafat has held on to power for three decades because he is as adept as any other successful organized crime boss at throwing his weight around and at executing whatever strategy (or rival) will ensure his continued supremacy. Thus, the worst case scenario would be if Arafat were to win a flawed election and assume a mandate to represent the Palestinian people. Israel would decry the legitimacy of the election, Arafat and the Arab nations would decry Israel's refusal to acknowledge Arafat's legitimacy, French students would strike (actually, that can be assumed, whatever other variables are changed) and we would be right back where we are today.

The only way to ensure that Arafat does not unduly influence the outcome of his elections is to have them run, from beginning to end, by an impartial international body, but such a thing is rare these days. The United States? The Palestinians would object and the US would never let itself be dragged into that crossfire. The EU(SSR)? Israel would never consider the result impartial. The United Nations? You can't be serious (see also, the EU(SSR)). You see the problem? Maybe a motley crew of representatives from all of these groups could be jumbled together, but then the Arab countries would demand to be represented (and rightly so, it affects them as much as anyone) and the resultant infighting, posturing, sabotage, and finger-pointing would hardly be worth the effort.

I hope that this appraisal of the situation is overly pessimistic, but as long as it comes from the mouth of Arafat, the promise of democratic accountability rings hollow in these ears.