Democracy Fail

04.16.13

Kerry Asks Palestinians To Skirt Rule Of Law

The United States likes to think of itself as a benevolent force in the world, a view held by the range of political persuasions from liberal internationalists to neoconservatives. But the latest political drama to grip Palestine—the resignation of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad—gives a window into just how skewed this self-image can be when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There's no push there for international partners to adhere to the rule of law; instead, the U.S. is asking Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the opposite. Secretary of State John Kerry, amid shuttling back and forth to the Middle East, reportedly asked the Palestinians to ignore their own laws and retain Fayyad as long as possible (with my emphasis):

"It looks like the president will wait to see the result of the two months that Kerry has asked for before he nominates a new prime minister," said a senior official close to Abbas who declined to be named. Palestinian law stipulates that Abbas should appoint a successor within two weeks. However, the president himself has overstayed his own mandate by four years and parliament has not met for six, indicating flexibility in the rulebook.

Fayyad, of course, rose to the role of prime minister only when the office was vacated by Hamas. That abdication came thanks to the civil war that bifurcated the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories into distinct parts: the West Bank under the P.A. and the Gaza Strip in the hands of Hamas. The schism—which erupted in 2007, after Hamas won parliamentary elections the year before, with the group's violent takeover of Gaza—came in the form of a pre-emptive counter-coup against a U.S.-backed plan to oust Hamas from power. That's when Fayyad, a technocrat, was appointed to be a prime minister with not even the shred of democratic legitimacy enjoyed by the man who appointed him.

The tensions here between the American values of democracy and rule of law and its reported diplomatic push could not be more stark against the backdrop of hard-fought American efforts—largely failed ones—to build institutions that reflect these values in the Middle East. Those efforts, of course, come neatly capped by the Arab popular revolts that began two years ago and rage on to this day. How—and why—does the U.S. ask all these nations from Afghanistan to Tunisia to build these systems of laws which it asks Palestinians to ignore?

David Runciman wrote recently in the London Review of Books that one of the things that made American democracy so unique—and its durability so remarkable—was its regular schedule: elections go off on time come hell or high water (the latter quite literally, in New York last fall), in wartime and in peace. It's a pity we discourage the Palestinians from sticking to their own timetables.