Putting The Blame On "Palestine's Democratic Deficit"

James Zogby responds to David Keyes' critique of the Palestinian government in the New York Times.

Uriel Sinai / Getty Images

In what can only be described as chutzpah, David Keyes, the Executive Director of a group calling itself Advancing Human Rights, penned "Palestine's Democratic Deficit," a column that appeared earlier this week in the New York Times.Keyes begins his piece decrying the Palestinian Authority's (PA) arrests, during the past few years, of activists who have been charged with criticizing the leadership. That done, he gets on to his real goal: making it clear that the Palestinians are not partners for peace, are not ready for a state of their own, and should not receive U.S. aid. His words:

A good indicator of how committed a government is to upholding peace with its neighbors is its commitment to protecting the human rights of its own citizens. Nations that disregard the freedoms of their own people are not likely to care much about maintaining peace with their historic enemies. Palestinian human rights, in other words, are key to the peace process...A positive first step would be linking Western economic aid to the Palestinian Authority's respect for free speech. Human rights, too often seen as a diversion from the peace process, are in fact the secret to it.

Several observations must be made in response. First, there is the Bush/Sharansky origin of Keyes' thesis. The rather bizarre notion that the Palestinians must first build a "practicing democracy based on tolerance and liberty" before they can have a state was first articulated by George W. Bush in June of 2002. Back then, with Israeli-Palestinian tensions at a high point, the world waited for two months while Bush was framing his approach to restoring peace-making efforts. A speech had been written by State Department Middle East experts, but at the last minute the White House inserted its "democracy first" demand which, instead of restarting the peace process, proved to be the "nail in its coffin."

How, I asked back then, could a people under military occupation establish a functioning democracy, without any functioning economy and with Palestinians seething in anger at the daily humiliation they were forced to endure, the denials of their rights to movement, the restrictions on their ability to engage in commerce, and the loss of their property and hopes all brought to them by their "democratic" neighbor?

State Department officials who had worked on the initial drafts of the speech were floored by the Bush insertions, which we later learned had come directly from the President after he had read a treatise on democracy by Natan Sharansky. Sharansky, the famed Soviet refusenik, had left the Soviet Union for Israel in 1986. I remember well how when he arrived in Israel he initially criticized that government's treatment of Palestinians. After being scolded, he never raised the subject again. Instead, Sharansky joined with hardliners to become a critic of all things Palestinian.

In this context it is useful to note that Keyes for many years worked for Natan Sharansky and refers to himself as a "Sharanskyite."

Then there is the organization that Keyes directs, Advancing Human Rights (AHR). AHR was the creation of Robert Bernstein. Bernstein had earlier founded Human Rights Watch (HRW). But in 2009, Bernstein resigned from HRW, charging that it had become too focused on criticizing Israel. Two years later, he launched AHR which, from a review of its website, criticizes everyone in the Middle East but Israel.

I want to be clear. I cannot condone the PA's performance or its behavior—and I have told them so. In the 1970's, I founded the Palestine Human Rights Campaign (PHRC), which defended Palestinians who had been tortured in Israeli prisons, held for prolonged periods under Administrative Detention (without being charged with any crime), whose homes had been demolished in acts of collective punishment, or who had been illegally and summarily expelled from the territories and separated from their families. We formed the PHRC in 1976 because back then no U.S. human rights group would adopt Palestinian cases. Even among the more progressive groups, Palestinians were a taboo topic. Some argued that it would disturb their members or supporters if they took on these issues. Others expressed the concern that if they embraced Palestinian cases and antagonized Israel, this would impede peace-making efforts!

In the mid-1990's, I was asked by the State Department to host a meeting for a visiting delegation of PA officials, one of whom had been an Administrative Detainee during the '80's. I assembled a group of individuals who had signed a petition back then to the Israeli occupation authorities calling for his release. After criticizing the PA's human rights record, we turned to that former prisoner and said, "We defended your rights when they were violated, don't force us to turn against you because you are violating human rights. Because we will." And we have.

At the same time, I am fully aware of the impossible conditions that have been imposed on the Palestinians by a persistent and corrosive occupation. They have been, in effect, required by the Israelis and the U.S. to manage the occupation and control their own people. Denied by the Israelis of the opportunity to grow their economy and produce a vibrant private sector, the PA has become dependent on the largess of others to pay salaries for a bloated public sector that is, for too many Palestinian families, the only available source of income. And facing resistance from a restive population, it should have been expected that they would behave as they have.

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the mid-'90's on the issue of the Palestinian economy, I was asked by Senator Diane Feinstein why Arafat couldn't be more like Mandela or Yeltsin. I responded that while those leaders assumed power over fully functioning sovereign states, in control of their economies and borders, Arafat and the fledgling PA inherited nothing but little captive "cantons" with no ability to import or export, no freedom to move or grow, and still losing control over more of their land to ever-expanding settlements and a network of Jewish-only roads. It would be inappropriate, under these circumstances, I noted, to single out the victim for blame.

This in no way justifies the behavior of the PA, but it puts the burden where it belongs—on the occupation that continues to maintain its demeaning control with no end in sight.

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That said, I can agree with a few of Keyes' observations in the passages cited above: "Palestinian human rights...are the key to the peace process" and "Human rights, often seen as a diversion from the peace process, are in fact the secret to it." Oh yes, and by the way, I agree with his argument that economic and military aid should be linked to human rights performance. But I would insist that this mandate should, of course, be applied to Israel, as well. To suggest that Israel be exempt and not held to account for its abuses of the human rights of a people it holds captive is the definition of chutzpah. However, I am not holding my breath for either AHR or, for that matter, the U.S. Congress to measure human rights by one yardstick.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misstated the first name of Advancing Human Rights founder Robert Bernstein as Ben. The editors regret the error.