Middle East democracy watch (a continuing series)

Is there anything more unconvincing than Arab leaders’ insistence that progress toward democracy and human rights in their countries depends entirely on settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

That was their dreary refrain at a US-sponsored conference in Rabat on the future of the Middle East.

Senior Arab officials… rejected the Bush administration’s assertion that greater democracy would help end terrorism, arguing that the administration’s strong support of Israel made it difficult to undertake political reforms or halt extremists driven by hatred of U.S. policies.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit attributed instability and insecurity in the region to the stagnation of the peace process…

…Moroccan Foreign Minister Mohamed Benaissa, pointedly noted that support for reform in the region “will go hand in hand” with support for a just peace for Palestinians.

Once again this raises several interesting questions:

–Are the Arab masses so enraged by the plight of the Palestinians that they will reject any moves toward democratization and reform by their own governments? What exactly is the connection?

–Will a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians turn “extremists driven by hatred of U.S. policies” into peaceful democrats? For that matter would their preferred solution– elimination of the “Zionist state”– have a similar salubrious effect?

–Is there something hypocritical about Arab governments– whose official media are filled with anti-Israel and anti-Zionist propaganda– pointing helplessly to the rage against Israel (to the supposed exclusion of all other concerns) among their populations?

–Why do so many Westerners take the claims of these Arab leaders at face value? Is it possible Amir Taheri is on to something when he writes, after spending the month of Ramadan in several Arab countries:

There are no free elections or reliable opinion polls in the Arab world. So no one knows what the silent majority really thinks. The best one can do is rely on anecdotal evidence. On that basis, I came to believe that the Palestine-Israel issue was low down on the list of priorities for the man in the street but something approaching an obsession for the political, business, and intellectual elites.

When it came to ordinary people, almost no one ever mentioned the Palestine issue, even on days when Yasser Arafat’s death dominated the headlines. When I asked them about issues that most preoccupied them, farmers, shopkeepers, taxi drivers and office workers never mentioned Palestine.

But when I talked to princes and princesses, business tycoons, high officials, and the glitterati of Arab academia, Palestine was the ur-issue.

The reason why the elites fake passion about this issue is that it is the only one on which they agree. In many cases, it is also the only political issue that people can discuss without running into trouble with the secret services.