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April 02, 2003

Arab Showplace? Could It Be the West Bank?

Difficult to understand at first reading but sensible. This Letter from the Middle East in The New York Times (reg req'd) suggests that given a decent constitution, a Palestinian state might show others in the region what can be done.
JERUSALEM, April 1 — "The State of Palestine is a sovereign, independent republic." So — perhaps wistfully, perhaps with promise — begins the new draft of the Palestinian constitution.

It may seem paradoxical that a people without a state would have the institutions of a democracy — an elected legislature, an elected president, a constitution that has been in the works for four years. Yet the paradox runs deeper than that. It is because of their experience of statelessness that Palestinians have a chance to build a democracy, though the Bush administration now seems more intent on creating a model Arab government in Iraq. Lessons learned in the Palestinian diaspora, and from struggling against and living alongside Israelis, have made many Palestinians yearn, not just for a state, but for a democratic state ...
Palestinians also worked in Israel and watched Israeli television. They saw that, for its own citizens, the Israeli system had distinct virtues. This is not easy for even ardent Palestinian democrats to acknowledge.

Yet since 1996, Dr. Shikaki has been polling Palestinians about what governments they admire, and every year Israel has been the top performer, at times receiving more than 80 percent approval. The American system has been the next best, followed by the French and then, distantly trailing, the Jordanian and Egyptian.

In its early days, the Palestinian Authority held fourth place, with about 50 percent approval. Now, it is dead last, under 20 percent. Corruption, mismanagement and the stagnation of the Palestinian predicament have turned the culture of criticism against the Palestinian rulers.

Whatever its ultimate borders, any Palestine would be a very small place without oil wells, dependent on the good will of Western democracies that can influence Israel. That is why President Bush was able to give a mighty push to the constitution and other state-building measures last June, when he set civic reform as a condition for peace talks.

Mr. Bush wanted to sideline Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, and he has since shifted his focus to reconfiguring another Arab leadership. But European nations have kept pushing here for democratic reform.

Dr. Ali Khashshan, the secretary general of the group that drafted the constitution, said he hoped for a referendum to approve it soon. "We need to guarantee our rights," he said.

Though the constitution is a work in process, secular and Christian Palestinians seem to be losing one battle: the draft declares Islam to be Palestine's "official religion," though it adds that Christianity and all other monotheistic religions shall be equally revered and respected." [more]