Democracy for Palestinians

The Wall Street Journal

So much for all those leaks about U.S. Presi-dent George W. Bush endorsing a new, in-terim Palestinian state. The long-awaited speech Mr. Bush actually delivered Monday was far more daring, and potentially a major leap for-ward in U.S. Middle East diplomacy.

The fear among many, including us, was that after several vicious weeks of suicide bombings, Mr. Bush would seem to be rewarding Palestin-ian terror. Some in the U.S. State Department were pushing a speech that would have done pre-cisely that.

But instead the president broke from the tired Saudi-State diplomacy and made the Palestinians a far more radical offer: U.S. recognition and aid, but only after they’ve elected new leaders who re-ject terrorism in deed and word and build institu-tions worthy of a state.

“Peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership, so that a Palestinian state can be born. I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders not compromised by terror,” Mr. Bush said. "When the Palestinian people have new leaders, new insti-tutions, and new security arrangements with their neighbors, the United States of America will sup-port the creation of a Palestinian state.”

It’s important to understand how radical this idea of democracy is for Palestine. For years the U.S. and Israel both winked at the brutality of Arab leaders, in the Faustian hope that they would pro-vide “stability” and “peace.” This was the flaw at the heart of the Oslo peace process, in which the U.S. sub-contracted with Yasser Arafat to stop at-tacks against Israel. But this was impossible as long as Arafat and other Palestinian leaders de-rived all of their political legitimacy from the strug-gle against Israel.

On Monday Mr. Bush said this day is over, “To-day the elected Palestinian legislature has no authority; and power is concentrated in the hands of an unaccountable few,” he said, adding that, “Pal-estinian authorities are encouraging, not opposing, terrorism. This is unacceptable."

In short, if Palestinians want the world to recog-nize them as a state, then they need to behave like a civilized one. That means democratic institutions, with leaders who win their legitimacy through the ballot box. It means functioning courts, not sum-mary executions of collaborators. And it also means what Mr. Bush called “an externally super-vised effort to rebuild and reform the Palestinian se-curity services."

Perhaps the best part of the speech was the name Mr. Bush never mentioned: Yasser Arafat. By ignoring him, the president was signaling to or-dinary Palestinians that their old ways and old lead-ers will not bring them the freedom they seek. “For decades you’ve been treated as pawns in the Mid-dle East conflict,” Mr. Bush said. "If liberty can blossom in the rocky soil of the West Bank and Gaza, it will inspire millions of men and women around the globe."

We have no illusions that such new leaders or lib-erty will blossom easily, and we doubt Mr. Bush does either. Ideally brave Palestinians will take it upon themselves to see that elections are held, and that they are free and fair. Having watched Israel’s free-wheeling democracy for years, they may be better prepared than Western elites weaned on Arafat give them credit for.

This goes especially for a U.S. State Department that considers its main allies in the region to be Arab dictatorships, especially Saudi Arabia. The Saudis will not be thrilled with the establishment of a democracy in another Arab land, especially one that would be an example to their own citizens.

And while Mr. Bush laid down formidable con-ditions for a Palestinian state, the diplomatic temptation will be to water them down over time. To turn Mr. Bush’s speech into reality, the U.S. will have to insist on elections that are real. This will mean resisting the Saudis, the Europeans and especially the State Department.

We’ve worried recently that Mr. Bush was los-ing his way in the Middle East, allowing himself to get bogged down in Palestine instead of focus-ing on the war on terror. But the speech lifted him out of that morass and put him firmly on the side of a new and very different Middle East, one with democracy at its core. It’s a message we think will have surprising resonance in the Arab world, not least among the people of Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia.