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The Palestinian Choice: Democracy or Dictatorship

FROM every indication, the creation of a Palestinian state is inevitable. The Gaza-Jericho agreement provides only the first stage in the long road toward statehood. Israel and the United States would be well advised to accept this inevitable development and help the Palestinians establish institutions for democratic rule.

The ultimate form of Palestinian government, however, remains in doubt. The Palestinians have all the elements for realizing democratic rule - or falling into dictatorship. How the pendulum will swing largely depends on how Israel and the US deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the conditions they set to help Palestinians be independent.

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Israelis and Palestinians who believe democracy will prevail point to a recent poll taken in the West Bank and Gaza that shows Palestinians strongly favor democratic rule. Less than 15 percent prefer a PLO self-appointed authority.

Palestinians living among Arabs of authoritarian regimes have experienced much abuse. Concurrently, in Israel proper and even under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza since 1967, the Palestinians have witnessed the Israeli democracy in action. Thousands of Palestinians who have traveled to Europe for work or study have experienced the benefits of democratic government and are unwilling to give up their right to elect and be elected.

Many Palestinian youths who battled the Israelis for more than six years reject the traditional leadership structure and are seeking to develop their own political life. These street leaders will not blindly follow the dictate of Yasser Arafat, chairman of the PLO. They want to participate in the political process and influence the outcome. Finally, the Palestinians are a cohesive community with no ethnic division, save a small Christian minority, and with a large percentage of highly educated individuals that tend to gravitate toward a democratic form of governing.

Against this backdrop, which makes democratic rule seem inevitable, a reality check on the ground reveals a different picture. The social class in Gaza and in the West Bank is fragmented and incapable of unified action other than defiance. Only the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) has a cohesive political force, and only the communist party is politically organized to wage an effective political campaign. Mr. Arafat, thus far, has shown no desire to rule by consensus, and has done very little to develop electoral politics. He relies heavily on security services, including Israeli, to secure his power. The PLO has never been financially accountable. Arafat's tight control of the Palestinian national movement was mainly the result of his ability to control funds. The closure of two pro-Jordan publications by Arafat last week after the Israeli-Jordan accord in Washington is evidence of his authoritarian style.

That no other Arab country has an established form of democracy discourages many Palestinians from vigorously pursuing reforms; they think there may be something inherent in Islamic culture that is incompatible with democracy. Many others believe the time may not be ripe for democratic rule because the Palestinians lack a large, literate middle class and a growing economy - which are essential to mediation and compromises in a democracy. There are already signs of despair among Palestinian intellectuals, including Sari Nusseibah and Hanan Ashrawi, who refuse to join Arafat's administrative authority.

Israel has found it easier over the years to deal with Arab dictators, who are not as subject to public scrutiny as are leaders of democratic nations. Peace negotiations may not have progressed to this level had Arab leaders been required to seek advice and consent. Some Israeli officials suggest that under the present political climate in the territories, Hamas could win an election -

hardly a victory for democracy.

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This ignores the fact that the future of the emerging Palestinian state sandwiched between Israel and Jordan is cast with the future and well-being of these two states. Israel is a full-fledged democracy, and in Jordan there has been clear progress toward democratization. Hamas's political fortune is affected more by what the PLO and Israel do than what Hamas itself can do.

What Palestinians want most are democracy and independence. This should define and characterize future negotiations on the final status of the West Bank. By knowing where the negotiations will lead, perhaps the Palestinians could make important concessions they would otherwise not contemplate - especially on Jerusalem, which represents a point of no return for most Israelis.

An agreement between Israel and the Palestinians emerging from a democratic Palestinian entity will have more legitimacy.

Contrary to the formal position that successive administrations have taken in support of democracy everywhere, the US has paid only lip service to pursuing democratic rule in the Middle East. This led many Arabs who yearn for democracy to question US commitment to its professed political values, and to accuse the Americans of double standards in their treatment of different countries. As Israel and the PLO enter the second phase of the negotiations on self-rule, the US has both the opportunity and the obligation to play a more active role in the negotiations.

PRESIDENT Clinton should support the creation of democratic institutions as forerunners of a Palestinian state. Financial aid to the Palestinians should be linked to the development of a stable Palestinian democracy with a pluralistic electorate and legitimate political parties. The US could make a significant contribution to the creation of a Palestinian democracy and overall peace and stability.

This must be the objective of the Clinton administration. Otherwise, Palestinian radical groups will win the day, giving Arafat the excuse he needs to maintain order through a repressive security apparatus. This will result in nothing less than a police state, and will be a recipe for perpetual instability. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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