Encouraging True Democracy in Palestine Brings Security to Israel

Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent policy speech sets out two “small” conditions for Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state: “if we receive this guarantee regarding the demilitarization” of Palestine,” and “if the Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people, then we will be ready in a future peace agreement to reach a solution where a demilitarized Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state.” It is not simply a question of the “ifs” and “maybe” and acceptance of the Jewish state, but he also demands the Palestinians renounce their fundamental right to defend themselves. He has effectively set out conditions that no self-respecting government, let alone that of the Palestinians, would ever accept.

Netanyahu, by demanding greater security for the Israelis, necessitates less democracy for the Palestinians. Threats, real or exaggerated, have significant consequences for democracy. They create a dilemma: they force us to choose between security or democracy.

This is an insidious paradox that is too often ignored in the making of foreign policy. Rising violence engenders all-around hostility and begets reduced empathy, reduced empathy provokes increased security, and this in turn diminishes democracy. As we act forcefully to ensure the security of states we sacrifice our human security. That concept can be defined as anything that identifies what it means to be human: democracy, freedom of speech, human rights and dignity.

Security-conscious political elites consistently flout the tenets of equality, privacy, and nondiscrimination. Security systems in airports now routinely include body searches, retina scans, biomedical passports and even racial profiling. The British government just unveiled details of its Humabio pilot project. Humabio is a new generation of biometric security systems that uses four layers of checks: facial recognition, fingerprint recognition, iris recognition, and vein imaging/palm recognition.

Even more insidious than over-zealous governments acting to protect their citizens is that ordinary people all over the world adopting fortress mentalities. In Latin America, high levels of fear and insecurity have led to increased reliance on private security guards, high walls, gated communities, calls for strict mano dura policing and mass incarceration of young men. In the shanty-town favelas of Rio Janeiro, building personal security has resulted in a system of vigilante protection provided by drug traffickers with violent crimes being met by equally violent reactions.

Violence and crime has made Johannesburg into a ghost town: the center has been deserted by businesses and shops. Drive through any wealthy suburb and you will see large houses barricaded by high walls, metal grilles and electric fences, infrared sensors attached to alarms and surveillance cameras. The sound you hear is guard dogs barking.

Nowhere is this more acute than here in the Middle East. Every routine journey I take involves a rigorous round of security checks, verification of papers and checkpoints (more than 260 of them in the region). And what if I were Palestinian? In that case, I would be subject to something akin to a military occupation infrastructure comprising checkpoints, Jewish-only settlements, road blocks, and the West Bank Wall, combined with a myriad of legal regulations that would govern my daily life.

Increases in violence and the perception of heightened threats have resulted in a social reaction that stymies democracy and limits basic human rights. The imperative of security induces us to surrender our civil liberties to daily surveillance and accept ever-more-intrusive curtailments of our freedom. But this is not a democratic practice that I am willing to accept. Paranoid, curtailed lives lived in perpetual fear and anxiety should not be the lived reality of democracy.

While I have been traveling in the Middle East, I am increasingly aware of the pivotal role that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict plays in this dilemma. Why does the survival of a small nation of 6.5 million people with a territory of 20,000 square kilometers (7,700 square miles) dictate the performance of democracy worldwide? Because, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most inflammatory issue in the Middle East, the flagship issue for proto-fascist Islamists worldwide and the political excuse sine qua non to justify hatred and terrorism. To resolve this issue is to remove a festering sore in the Middle East.

Trouble here affects not just 7 million Israelis, around 4 million Palestinians, and 200 million Arabs; it also affects more than a billion Muslims worldwide. Every time there is a major flare-up in the Middle East, such as the U.S. invasion of Iraq or the Israeli bombing of Gaza, Islamic communities around the world become concerned, distressed, and angered. Few of them doubt the problem’s origin: the West. Now, the problem concerns more than the billion Muslims but extends to the entire world.

This anger is the strongest recruiting tool for a new generation of Hamas and Hezbollah. The cycle of hate and distrust moves beyond the Middle East. Transnational terrorists are enjoying record levels of recruitment among the Muslim youth of the poor suburbs of Paris and the housing projects of British inner cities. As we live physically closer to each other and also more technologically connected, there is no such thing as a separate conflict “far away” in the Middle East. Instead globalization interacts with growing demographics to create a melting pot of the world.

This is not just a question of democracy and stability in two states or even 57 states of the Middle East – it is a question of the safety and stability of 194 countries. Global security is being held hostage by this conflict. Terrorism, conflict, and regional instability caused by the Israeli-Palestinian issue have global repercussions.

There are other dangers in an interconnected, networked world. New and deadly forms of biological and cyber warfare are not hindered by the boundaries of nation-states. The fact that the components of nuclear, cyber and biological weapons seem to be increasingly available for clandestine purchase means that we must take seriously the danger that a ruthless breed of terrorists or a hostile government will soon possess such weapons.

The danger is already visible here in the Middle East. Even that most impregnable security state Israel with its F-16s, Jericho -1 and -2s, MGM Lance 52 missiles and Arrow and Patriot missile defense systems is virtually unprotected against cyber and biological weapons. Most countries that Israel considers itself likely to fight have been developing some sort of chemical or biological warfare for decades. Syria, for example, has an advanced chemical weapons capacity – Sarin, VX nerve gas and a small biological warfare program.

As for Iran, in June 2001, a plan called the Comprehensive National Microbial Defense Plan was adopted by the Supreme National Security Council . There is some discussion whether Iran may be building its own biological weapons capacity of anthrax, aflatoxin and microbial bombs using the smallpox virus, typhoid fever and the plague.

Cyber weapons are becoming easier to obtain, easier to use and more powerful. They vary from Trojan horses; denial-of-service attack tools; computer viruses; malicious computer code to powerful electromagnetic surges that disable computer electrics. The Achilles’ heel of any defensive response is that interconnected systems and ubiquitous communication networks means that any retaliation could have adverse repercussions on allied civilian infrastructure. U.S. forces reportedly rejected launching their own cyber attack against Iraqi banks in 2003 as such a move might also have brought down banks and cash machines in Europe.

In 2004, Eugene Kaspersky, of Kaspersky Labs, wrote a report, carried by the Russian television channel RIA Novosti, warning that we might be in danger of a large-scale attack delivered by Islamic terrorists – what he called an “electronic jihad.”

No unwieldy bureaucracy of government can move as fast as a cyberterrorist. No supply chain, however efficient, can out-pace a pandemic that spreads by human contact. It is only a matter of time before no government will be able to ensure the security of its people.


The two paramount security threats in the Middle East are the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a hostile, nuclear-armed Iran. These are two separate issues and part of the confusion arises when they are unhelpfully lumped into one.

The threat of a hostile Iran with nuclear capacity is an issue for the international community. The international community – be it the G20, the UN Security Council — has failed to deal decisively with Iran. By surrendering leadership in this matter, they have allowed the threat to grow, and Israel has had no option but to step into the vacuum and be the policeman of the Middle East.

Yet, a belligerent anti-Iranian policy by Israel serves Iranian strategic goals: it provides domestic support for Iran’s conservative anti-Semitic government, it inflames anti-Israeli sentiment in the Middle East, and it isolates Israel. (Conversely, the consequence of Arab-Israeli peace would be the isolation of Iran).

Iran is not a matter for Israel. First, Israel must manage its own conflict. Arguably, the state of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is the worst it has been for decades. However, there is a qualitative difference to the past. The July-August 2006 foray against Hezbollah and especially the bombing of Gaza in January 2009 has caused an international psychological shift against Israel. Around the world, we watched aghast as human beings (not Hamas – unless schoolchildren were Hamas fighters) were killed, maimed, displaced, and then denied access to vital medical and food supplies. It was aptly called by the UN an 18-month “human dignity crisis.”

In fact, Israel’s campaign against Hamas did not damage Hamas in the long term and it did not increase Israeli security. It only served to deepen the antagonism against Israel.
Political dialog and ideas are of course crucial. There should be negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (predicated on the Palestinian leadership acting decisively against violence). The negotiating track should be reopened on the basis of the road map of 2002: Jerusalem should be declared international territory and there must be a clear unambiguous acceptance on both sides for a two-state solution to the conflict.

For a two-state solution to succeed it must be meaningful on the ground: statehood means that the Palestinians should be allowed the political and economic space to develop their democracy, their educational system, and their own import and export routes. They must control their own borders and they must have control of their own basic resources – currently 80% of their water is controlled by the Israelis. After four decades of Israeli occupation, there is no independent Palestinian currency, airport, or seaport. If Palestine does not control its borders and its airspace, there will always be rocket attacks on Israel. It is counter-strategic to for Israel to act as it does.

It has never been an issue of crafting reasonable political solutions but rather there has rarely been political leadership in either Israel or Palestine that has been willing to forgo violence, make compromises, and forget past injustices. On both sides, the political players are biased; emotions run high and dictate the politics. But, this is unsustainable – neither the scared people of Israel nor the starving people of Palestine have time for the luxury of self-indulgent anger and the righteous indignation of their politicians. It is time for the political elites of Israel and Palestine to take responsibility and forge a solution. If necessary, a final compromise needs to be prised out of these unwilling collaborators. They need to sit down together and they need to talk. Strong-arm tactics were tried at Camp David in the 1970s, and it did work. But it was temporary because the same stagnant political issues and the same political players remained at the heart of the discourse.

Therefore, there should be a focus on a new game altogether – social transformation, cultural exchange and profoundly altering the political culture of the region. History provides us with the templates: Japan and Germany after World War II underwent significant social transformation, constitutional reform, re-educated its political classes and forged cultural links with historic enemies. Today, those two historically belligerent powers are responsible, pacifist voices on the international stage.

Instead of endlessly traversing the political differences there could be a productive discussion on what possibilities peace would bring: tourism, economic progress, the cultural blossoming – focusing on the positive results of peace rather than narrowly concentrating on the fraught politics of war. This is not to ignore the politics but rather to widen the negotiating table to include economists, cultural theorists, artists and psychologists – only such a holistic approach aimed at nothing less than a radical transformation of the political culture of the region will allow change to become feasible.

Meanwhile, there should be a very intense concentration on improving Palestinian life in the West Bank. The reopening of a political track and making visible progress in the West Bank to materially improve the everyday reality of Palestinian – this is the combination that will build a lasting, enduring solution to the crisis.

Aid to Gaza must increase, and it must reach its intended recipients. The U.S. and western countries have put significant amounts of money into their Middle East development assistance budgets, but these funds’ primary purpose is to serve the immediate and short-term security and national interests of the donors rather than the long-term interests of the Israeli and Palestinian people. It is not enough for the U.S. to pledge $900 million in humanitarian aid to Gaza if the Israeli military is preventing the entry into Gaza of materials such as cement and piping that are crucial to rebuild hospitals, schools, and homes.

There’s a lot to be done for the economy in the West Bank: trade must be improved and barriers to trade eradicated. The economy could benefit if, for example, the Israelis would remove some of the checkpoints that hinder movement on the ground in the West Bank. A 2008 World Bank report stated that systemic and perpetual economic hindrances – road blacks, sanctions, the Wall – were a “paralysis confronting the Palestinian economy.”


U.S. leadership is vital in the region but it must recognise the limits of military power. A military solution to the Middle East — far from affirming America’s leadership role — rouses hatred, undermines its authority, and ultimately weakens U.S. standing and safety. Arguably, the priorities and methods of the Obama administration are much more amenable and productive than what has gone before.

However, U.S. authority in this region is compromised: the war in Iraq and the so-called Israel lobby means that the U.S. acts as a hindrance rather than a help to Israel. It is perceived as over-indulgent of Israel. The siege of Gaza was seen as a joint U.S.-Israeli exercise. The Apache helicopter-gunships are seen less as Israeli aircraft than American aircraft with Israeli markings.

Leadership and guidance must be provided by the international community. There is already a ready-made forum of the international community – the G20. Twenty of the most significant democracies accounting for 85% of the world’s economy – speaking with one voice is a force to be reckoned with. There are few other options – the G20 must act.

There is a particular role for the EU. Today, Europe matters in international affairs: a wealthy power with tremendous economic potential. It must choose to engage rather than hang back and rely on the U.S. There have been promising signs. Karel Schwarzenberg, the Czech politician currently overseeing his country’s EU presidency, recently commented that ties between Israel and the EU would suffer if Israel did not pursue Palestinian statehood. With the EU as Israel’s largest market for exports and its second-largest source of imports after the U.S., it’s likely that the message did not fall on deaf ears.

Most importantly, Europe would bring a new, more acceptable, voice to the table. The EU’s normative approach to foreign policy, its tools of cultural diplomacy, its expertise in post-conflict reconstruction, and even its apparent sympathy to the Palestinians makes it a distinctive and uniquely powerful player within the Middle East. The EU’s oft-cited weakness as a “civilian power” is exactly the type of strength required here.

In my conversations with Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims from all over the Middle East and Jewish friends from all over the world, I have come away with the overwhelming feeling that average citizens are tired of and disheartened by this war. There are promising possibilities in the moderation of the average citizen.

Consider Hezbollah in Lebanon. The war against Israel in 2008 did not win Hezbollah any more support – rather the Lebanese have been asking “why do we need to fight Israel anymore. what ideology is worth all this misery?” Hezbollah has been losing support dramatically. According to opinion polls conducted by the International Peace Institute, 58% of Lebanese feel that Hezbollah’s actions were unjustified in 2008. While the resounding victory for Lebanon’s Western-backed coalition in the June 2009 elections reveals how politically weak Hezbollah has become. The restraint and temperance of the Lebanese people should be a message to the politicians.

It will take a political miracle to enable a serious engagement toward a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine. Rather than solely pursue this possibly unattainable goal and leaning so heavily on the preventative tools of security and high-politics, the international approach should focus on positive goals: creating a democratic civil society, promoting respect for the rule of law and human rights, encouraging cultural exchange and intellectual discourse, promoting trade, and bolstering economic liberalization. It is only on these foundations will we be able to build long-term stability, order and prosperity in the Middle East.

It follows that our foreign policy elites must accept a different model of democracy – one that is inclusive, accepting of values and cultures and different political systems. Building intercultural dialog through foreign policy and building a foreign policy that embraces cultural dialog – that is the only choice left. Everything else has been tried and has failed.

The silence and paralysis engendered by this crisis, the simmering anger just barely contained beneath the surface and above all the fear – living like trapped rats in our little corner of the world – should not be the accepted state of human life in the 21st century. It is about time we rediscovered the promise of globalization. We need to remind ourselves that it is not just a menacing world of terrorist cells, cross-border surveillance and deadly diseases. Globalization was to have been the way forward: make the world smaller, safer, more multicultural, and more diverse; to advance the rule of law, guarantee human rights, and ultimately expand the sphere of consensual democracy.

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