Democracy against peace[1]

Dr. Asem Khalil*


‘An optimist in a pessimist world’. This was the title of an article published in the Israeli newspaper Yadout Ahraonot, the day of Palestinian presidential elections last January 9th. The ‘optimist’ for the author, Rony Shakid, would be Abu Mazen, the new PA president. “The future is full of interrogatives –he continued- for this reason, we need to be realistic and not to expect radical changes. Being optimist in a pessimist world may lead to greater disappointment".

Less than one month after his election, positive reactions started to join Mahmoud Abbas from all over the world: beside the United States promised 365 million dollars and the European Union engagements for financial and technical aids, the Israeli government had approved the evacuation plan from five Palestinian cities and the liberation of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

The implementation of those promises will depend mostly on the Palestinians ‘good behaviour’. In case the Palestinian resistance groups break the cease-fire, Israel will react. Israel, then, may postpone, suspend or cancel its engagements to evacuate Palestinian cities, resume the physical elimination of the ‘wanted’, and break off the dialogue with the Palestinian Authority.

Nevertheless, the Palestinian respect of their duties, set up in the Road Map, especially related to security and reform, would not guarantee in itself the Israeli application of their engagements. Actually, this does not depend on the good will of the Israeli government nor on the pragmatism of its prime minister (in case one admits their existence) but rather on the power relations inside Israel between political parties who reflect the fears of its public opinion.

Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, with the exception of all others”. Far from denying the importance of democracy and its existence in Israel, I may urge here that the particular (legislative, judiciary and executive) system in Israel is the real obstacle to peace or at least to signing and implementing a peace treaty with the Palestinians, based on international legacy and the end of the longest occupation of the recent history.

First, the electoral system: All the country is considered as unique electoral circumscription. The party that obtains at least 2 % of the ballots, according to the proportional system, obtains a seat in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Consequently, in order to ensure its survival, the party that obtains the majority is constrained to look for coalition with small parties, mostly the religious ones (24 governments over 29!). This explains, for example, why successive governments, without distinction between left or right, had always constructed new settlements in the Palestinian territories, despite the large opposition of the public opinion.

Second, the decision making process in the Israeli cabinet: In case of divergences inside the cabinet, the prime minister, elected directly, submit his decisions to the cabinet’s vote which may also adopt different position, ignoring his engagements in the international arena. For example, after the Knesset’s approval of the Gaza disengagement plan, the national government approved the first step in February 21st, thanks to the support of labour ministers. The plan includes other four steps that need the approval of the cabinet which is not obvious since the national government may disappear much before next July 20. In fact, anticipated elections may be organised in Israel if the government fail to obtain the Knesset approval for the budget by end march. Sharon, most probably re-elected, will not be able to obtain the majority of his cabinet.

Third, the applicability of international law: Israel is a dualist country; this means that the national law prevails on the international law. For this reason, the Israeli Supreme Court had always refused the de iure applicability of IV Geneva Convention. Accordingly, the Israeli judge will not be able to enforce the provisions of the convention unless converted to national law and the Israeli government will not be pursued for violation of humanitarian law. This is why the Israeli government continues to construct the Separation Wall in the West Bank, although considered illegal by the International Court of Justice for violating, inter alia, the IV Geneva convention.

In the ‘other side of the wall’, the Palestinians seem to start controlling the game’s rules, in the post-September 11’s international community. They understood that self-determination is not enough by itself since the "right" depends mostly on the existing relations of force between states and/or other international subjects and actors in an international community that lacks a central executive power. Besides, they discovered finally that being victim is no more sufficient to obtain justice. A people, in the name of self-determination, cannot violate other imperative international laws without risking the legitimacy bases of his right to resist occupation.

Nevertheless, conscious that making peace is much more difficult and sophisticated than declaring war, Israelis and Palestinians need to be much more attentive not to repeat the errors of the recent past. This time, Palestinians must be much more sensitive to the Israeli necessities of security and the Israelis to the improvement of the economic situation in the Palestinian territories. But this is not enough. Israel shall ensure the application of its engagements in the fixed delays and meanwhile, it shall stop building settlements in the West Bank and stop confiscating Palestinian lands to construct the separation wall.

An Israeli journalist has written recently that the Palestinians and the Israelis seem two exhausted boxers that wait for the end of the match, without worrying of who has won and who has lost! We hope that this occasion will not be reduced to a mere break for the two parties in order resume their remaining forces for the next round!


* The author is Palestinian scholar living in Switzerland.


[1] Original italian version published in Toscana Oggi, N.6, 13 February,