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Which First: Arab Democratization or Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Resolution?
By Mark N. Katz


April 1, 2005

The Arab world consists entirely of dictatorships. A few have elected parliaments, but these have little power vis-à-vis their country's unelected king, prince, or president. Sadly, the most prominent Arab opposition movements seeking to oust the existing Arab dictators don't want democracy either, but some alternative form of authoritarianism such as Islamic fundamentalism.

This lack of democracy has stunted the Arab world in many ways. It has led to inordinate resources being devoted to maintaining numerous security services in each state which have the dual task of suppressing society as well as keeping watch over each other. It has led to bloated bureaucracies whose main purpose appears to be to extract bribes from ordinary citizens at every possible opportunity. It has led to state-controlled economies which are so mismanaged that many people living even in some of the oil rich states are poor. And it has led to education systems which overemphasize state-sponsored ideologies and underemphasize the skills needed to compete in an increasingly globalized economy.

Authoritarian regimes have failed to solve the Arab world's problems; indeed, they are the chief cause of them. Yet whenever anyone from the West calls for political reform in the Arab world, Arabs almost always respond that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be settled first.

For many Arabs, this is one of those things that seems so obvious that it does not even need to be explained. But when pressed, they state several reasons why this "must" happen. One is that democratization in the Arab world will take a long time, and the Palestinians should not have to wait for this. At least this response implies democracy would be something valuable for the Arab world. But other responses don't. Some Arabs see the Bush administration call for democratizing the Arab world as an attempt by the U.S. to impose its will on the Middle East. In other words: if America wants it, then democracy is "obviously" something bad for the Arab world.

Then there are those such as Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Abul Gheit who objects to the notion that "reform" is needed in the Arab world since this implies that there is anything wrong there that requires fixing. In other words: Arab states already have their own form of democracy (either of the "revolutionary" form in the "republics" or the traditional "desert" variety in the monarchies), and thus U.S. insistence on imposing "Western democracy" on the Arab world is unnecessary, culturally insensitive, and just an excuse for not resolving the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Finally, I have heard many Arabs claim that the very existence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is what prevents the democratization of the Arab world. Again, this is something they see as so "obvious" that it does not require explanation.

The only thing that is "obvious" about any of these arguments, though, is that they are obviously false. There is no reason to think that democratization would take all that long to put down roots in the Arab world; there have been many examples recently of countries which have had little or no experience with democracy making a rapid transition to it-including the largest Muslim country, Indonesia. The notion that democracy in the Arab world would somehow allow the U.S. to impose its will is ludicrous. On the contrary, parties critical of American policy are widely expected to win free elections in the Arab world.
The argument that the Arabs already have their own form of democracy is also false. But while many Arabs will acknowledge this to be true, they cling tenaciously to the idea that the existence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict prevents the democratization of the Arab world. Yet this idea is no more true than the notion that the existing Arab dictatorships are already democratic.

How does the existence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict prevent the democratization of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, or the Arab states that are even farther away from Israel? It doesn't. It is the dictatorial governments of these countries that are preventing this instead. Fearing that they would be thrown out by free elections, they want to avoid them at all costs. The existence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is merely an excuse they point to for not holding elections. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ever were resolved, they would look for some other excuse not to hold free elections.

What is especially sad about the "there can't be democracy in the Arab world without the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being resolved first" argument is that it discounts the profoundly positive effect that the democratization of the Arab world could have on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The rise of peaceful, democratic governments in the Arab states surrounding Israel as well as the transformation of the various Palestinian movements into a peaceful, democratic political force would do much to allay Israeli security fears. Further, while there would still be many contentious issues between Israel on the one hand and a democratic Palestinian movement and its democratic Arab neighbors on the other, their all being democratic would greatly facilitate the peace process. Americans would also look at the situation differently: while most Americans now see Israel as needing U.S. support against its current set of violent, authoritarian Arab adversaries, they would expect it to reach some sort of compromise with peaceful, democratic ones.

Far from somehow weakening them vis-à-vis Israel, the democratization of Arab states and the Palestinian movement would greatly increase the legitimacy of the demand for an independent Palestinian state as well as reduce the legitimacy of Israeli objections to its creation. This argument appears so "obvious" to me that it does not require further explanation. I recognize, though, that it might not appear obvious to many Arabs. They may fear being "tricked" into democratizing without the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being resolved shortly thereafter. But even if this happens, those Arab countries that democratized would surely be better off for doing so (something, again, that seems "obvious" to me).

What really is obvious is that those who argue that "there can't be democracy in the Arab world without the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being resolved first" really aren't interested in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What they're interested in instead is either providing an excuse for why an existing Arab dictatorship should remain in power, or for arguing why the regime that replaces it should also be a dictatorship.


Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.


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