- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
The war in Gaza has focused attention once again on the search for solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The solution favored by the United States, the European Union, most of the world’s democracies, and the United Nations has long been the two-state solution. This formula calls for two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side peacefully with security for both. But would the Palestinian state be a democracy? That does not seem to be a widely shared objective.
The first Oslo agreement [PDF] in 1993 called for Palestinian self-government in its Declaration of Principles and mentioned democracy in its article on elections, saying that “[in] order that the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip may govern themselves according to democratic principles, direct, free and general political elections will be held.” What are the “democratic principles” in question? Do they include freedom of speech and press, an independent judiciary, and protection of human rights? There were no answers. In seventeen articles and four annexes, that was the only mention of the term “democracy,” and even there it was more an aside than a fundamental objective. At the White House signing ceremony in September 1993, President Bill Clinton said “the security of the Israeli people will be reconciled with the hopes of the Palestinian people,” but said nothing about whether those hopes included democracy.
Yasser Arafat won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the Oslo Accords, but his Nobel lecture in 1994 did not mention democracy. Instead, he talked only of peace.
Oslo II, in 1995, said more. It called for “direct, free and general political elections…in order that the Palestinian people in the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip may democratically elect accountable representatives.” Its preamble went on to say that “these elections will constitute a significant interim preparatory step toward the realization of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and their just requirements and will provide a democratic basis for the establishment of Palestinian institutions.” In Oslo II’s thirty-one articles there is one other related statement, an article on human rights and the rule of law [PDF] that states that Israel and the newly created Palestinian Council (a legislative body) “shall exercise their powers and responsibilities pursuant to this Agreement with due regard to internationally accepted norms and principles of human rights and the rule of law.”
It is fair to say, then, that while little was said by the principal actors about democracy and human rights, the concepts were embedded in the Oslo Accords. But they were soon ignored and abandoned by the signatories—and by the international community. The 1996 Palestinian elections saw Arafat win 90 percent of the vote. This could explain why Arafat was willing to promise elections, but even so, that was the last election (parliamentary or presidential) that he permitted. Subsequently, the pledges of respect for human rights and the rule of law were entirely abandoned. The December 1996 report by Amnesty International on human rights in the Palestinian territories was entitled “Palestinian Authority: Prolonged political detention, torture and unfair trials.” The report’s conclusion is worth quoting because it describes a situation that still exists today:
The world desire for peace in the Middle East has led to an international readiness to subordinate human rights concerns to the pursuit of peace and an unwillingness by many countries to raise human rights violations committed whether by Israel or by the Palestinian Authority. The overriding importance given in the peace agreements to security issues has almost inevitably meant that human rights are not a priority for either side; the prolonged detention or summary trials of those opposed to the peace process are accepted as necessary for peace; the Palestinian Authority’s adherence to even basic human rights standards is of far less importance.
The most recent Amnesty report (2023–24), almost thirty years later, shows that little has changed:
Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip continued to heavily restrict freedom of expression, association and assembly. They also held scores of people in arbitrary detention and subjected many to torture and other ill treatment. Justice for serious human rights violations remained elusive....Palestinian authorities failed to hold parliamentary and presidential elections that had been delayed again by President Abbas in 2021. The last elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council were in 2006. President Abbas continued to rule by decree amid popular discontent.
The failure to hold scheduled presidential or parliamentary elections in eighteen years is no secret, nor are the human rights abuses. But as Amnesty said in 1996, little attention is being paid.
In December 2022, EU Foreign Minister Josep Borrell declared that
The two-state solution remains the best way of bringing lasting peace, stability and equal rights to both people. . . . Our message to the incoming Israeli government, which we hope will confirm the country’s full commitment to the shared values of democracy and rule of law, and with which we hope to engage in serious conversation on the conflict and the need to re-open the political horizon for the Palestinian population.
Democracy and the rule of law seem to be for Israelis; the “equal rights” of the Palestinian people mean national self-determination rather than true democratic structures. Palestine might be free, but there is no commitment to assuring that Palestinians will be.
For the United States, the goal of the peace process has been to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to an end by having two states living side by side with peace and security. Internal political arrangements for the Palestinians were secondary—if they mattered at all. Yasser Arafat was the Palestinian leader with whom the United States dealt from the Oslo years until his death in 2004; since 2005, the Palestinian president has been Mahmoud Abbas, although he lost control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. Both men ran the Palestinian Authority (PA) as a corrupt fiefdom without respect for democracy and human rights, yet the United States supplied the PA under their rule with hundreds of millions of dollars in economic assistance.
There was one exception: in his last years, Arafat was heavily criticized by the United States for his corruption and especially his support for terrorism, which, after September 11 and during the global war on terror, the George W. Bush administration viewed as intolerable. Trying to push Arafat aside in 2002, Bush called on Palestinians “to build a practicing democracy, based on tolerance and liberty.” That goal was reprised in Donald Trump’s peace plan in 2020 [PDF], which said “the region cannot absorb…another state not committed to human rights or the rule of law,” and called for a Palestinian “governing system with a constitution or another system for establishing the rule of law that provides for freedom of press, free and fair elections, respect for human rights for its citizens, protections for religious freedom…and an independent judiciary.” But that plan never got off the ground and did not affect U.S. relations with the Palestinian Authority.
Except for that brief period under Bush when serious efforts were made to promote free elections and respect for human rights in the West Bank and Gaza, the United States has been content to deal with the existing Palestinian Authority since the Oslo Accords. The foreign policy goal remained Palestinian statehood—independence and sovereignty—not Palestinian democracy.
In President Barack Obama’s famous Cairo University speech in 2009, he noted “the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.” Not a word about democracy. In 2013 he spoke in Israel, where he called for “two states for two peoples,” and said “the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine.” Again, democracy appeared to be for Israelis only. In January 2024, both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan spoke in Davos at the World Economic Forum, and neither mentioned democracy when discussing the two-state solution. Blinken spoke at length with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman about the two-state solution and called for “a stronger, reformed Palestinian Authority that can more effectively deliver for its own people,” saying:
We’re talking about …. a governance, a government, and a structure of governance that maximizes the ability of the authority to actually deliver what the Palestinian people want and need….the Palestinians are looking very hard at how they can come up with a more effective governance that can actually deliver what the people want. Some of what needs to be delivered is the basic – the basic function of government, services, no corruption, transparency in the way government is pursued.
That neglect of human rights and democracy as part of the two-state solution is shared by the government of Israel. For Israel, the main goals with respect to its Arab neighbors and any new Palestinian entity are security and the recognition of Israel. Internal arrangements among Arabs are, for most Israelis, not their concern. Indeed, many Israelis have long thought that order and security would be more easily maintained by a strong hand. As Israeli leader and former Soviet “refusenik” Natan Sharansky put it recently, “30 years ago, after the Oslo Accords…the free world chose to install Yasser Arafat as dictator over the Palestinian people. At the time, Arafat’s absolute power and corruption were considered advantages: The absence of a judiciary and civil society as a check would allow him to stamp out Hamas with an iron fist.”
That was certainly the view of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1993, when he complained about interference [PDF] with Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) conduct in the West Bank by the Israeli courts, the human rights organization B’Tselem, and protest groups, and suggested that Arafat would manage things more easily. “If the Palestinians become partner to an agreement,” he said, “they will manage their internal affairs without a High Court of Justice, without B’Tselem, and without various organizations of mothers and fathers.”
As Sharansky summed it up in 2000, “Israel and the West are too quick to rely on strong leaders for stability. Democracies often prefer to deal with dictators who have full control.” This is also true, unsurprisingly, for the Arab states. None are democracies, and none are insisting that a Palestinian state must be one.
Today the United States and the EU are pressing hard for the two-state solution. EU Foreign Minister Borrell said in January that the Israelis and Palestinians “are too opposed to be able to reach an agreement autonomously. If everyone is in favor of this solution, the international community will have to impose it.” The question that Western governments are not answering clearly, however, is what sort of state that new Palestinian state would be. Would recognition be denied until international standards of respect for human rights are met? Until the deep human rights problems mentioned by Amnesty are solved or at least addressed? Freedom House says of the West Bank that “the PA governs in an authoritarian manner, engaging in repression against journalists and activists who present critical views on its rule” and notes that the PA “has no functioning legislature.” Moreover, “news media are generally not free in the West Bank” and “human rights organizations have accused the PA of monitoring social media posts and detaining users for harsh questioning over their comments.” Will any of that change? Do the governments insisting on establishment of a Palestinian state care?
There is an additional problem that is very rarely discussed. In the last Palestinian parliamentary elections, in 2006, Hamas won a 44–41 percent plurality over the ruling Fatah party. Today, since the October 7 Hamas onslaught against Israel, Hamas’s popularity has risen greatly. What if an election is held and Hamas—or a successor or proxy party—wins? Will candidates, groups, or parties that are not committed to “two states living side by side in peace and security,” but are instead dedicated to elimination of the state of Israel, be permitted to run? What about candidates, groups, or parties that are not committed to democracy, or to full respect for human rights? Must the new Palestinian state be a democratic state committed to peace?
If the governments insisting now on a two-state solution have answers to these questions, they are not supplying them. Arab states and the United Nations are calling for “irreversible” steps toward a Palestinian state—which suggests that the absence of democracy or respect for human rights in such a state are a low priority. And in February 2024, Secretary of State Blinken stated U.S. support for a “time-bound, irreversible path to a Palestinian state.”
The time for this debate about the nature of any Palestinian state is now, not when it is too late to insist on basic principles and practices. That is surely one of the lessons of Oslo, when most (and at times, all) Western and Arab governments and the government of Israel simply abandoned Palestinian democracy and watched as the West Bank and Gaza both came under autocratic rule and human rights guarantees disappeared. It remains to be seen whether the lessons have been learned.