July 14, 2011:
Palestinian leaders are preparing to make a big diplomatic push in the UN this Fall, to gain membership for themselves, and a UN resolution declaring Palestine an independent state (containing all of the West Bank and Gaza). Many of the foreign donors who sustain the Palestinian economy are not happy with this, and have cut their contributions. As a result, the 150,000 PLO (the Palestinian government in West Bank) employees are on half pay this month. If the Palestinians follow through with their threat, contributions will be cut even more. The Palestinians have been unable to negotiate a peace deal (including statehood) with Israel, and aren't really willing to. The Palestinian failure to make some kind of peace deal, after six decades, is exhausting the patience of many long-time supporters.
Unfortunately, the Palestinian experience is common in the Arab world. While the Palestinians are united by their desire to destroy Israel and drive all Jews from the Middle East, they are divided by many things, including religion. Although most (except for three percent who are Christians) are Moslem, they are at odds over what kind of Islam should be practiced. Many, if not most, Palestinians in Gaza (where 1.5 million live) favor Islamic conservatism, and making religion the center of people's lives and forcing all Palestinians to comply with Islamic law (Sharia). But in the West Bank (where 2.5 million live), the trend is definitely in favor of education (always popular among Palestinians) and moving away from destructive practices (religious conservatism and Islamic terrorism). This is actually still a contentious issue in the West Bank, where the ruling (as the PLO) Fatah party has long been known for corruption more than any kind of reform. But the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority (a Fatah man) has been talking up more education, and critical thinking (something that could get you killed in Iran).
Some Arab leaders go even further. Four years ago, at a meeting of the Arab League, the king of Saudi Arabia told the assembled rulers that the biggest problem in the Arab world was poor leadership. This was a bold statement, but not unusual for the senior people in the Saudi government. These princes have also been supporting the Arab Reform Movement, which is based on the idea that most of the Arab world's problems are internal, not the result of outside interference. Actually, most educated Arabs will readily admit that their leaders have been less than stellar, and largely responsible for the corruption and bad decisions that have put the Arab world so far behind the West, and every other region, except Africa, when it comes to economic growth.
But knowing and admitting to the problem does not solve it. The United States found that out after Saddam Hussein's Baath Party dictatorship was overthrown. Iraqis eagerly embraced democracy, only to find that the people they elected were not a big improvement over Saddam. Some of Iraq's new leaders backed terrorists. This was especially true of Iran backed Shia factions, which unleashed death squads, that killed thousands of Sunni Arabs, four years ago. Some of the Sunni Arab leaders supported terrorists who targeted Shias. And then there was the corruption, with billions of dollars of government money missing.
This incompetence is also, as the Saudi king likes to point out, the cause of the Islamic terrorism that has found a home in the Islamic world. Indeed, these terrorists only began attacking kafirs (non-Moslems) in the 1990s when they realized Islamic terrorists were getting shut down in Arab countries. In Egypt, Syria and Algeria, Islamic radical attempts to toss out corrupt governments all failed. While Arab leadership may suck, these guys have certainly mastered the art of running a police state.
But attacking non-Moslems, outside of the Moslem world, brought into play the Western media. This was important, because the Western media now had 24 hour, world-wide (via satellite) outlets. All the people that mattered could now see what the Islamic terrorists did. Before, terror attacks inside Arab countries were largely ignored by the rest of the world. But now, the instant publicity was critical, because there were millions of Arabs living in the West. These people were making more money than they were back home. Fed up with the corrupt and incompetent leadership back home, they moved. This Arab Diaspora provided a refuge for Islamic militants. Another benefit was the appearance of Arab language satellite news services in the 1990s. Terrorist movements thrived on publicity, and the more news channels there were out there, the more attention terrorist attacks would get.
All that terrorism is a sign that some Arabs are very unhappy. For decades, the powers-that-be refused to acknowledge why the kids were pissed off. Thanks to all those suicide bombs and breathless news reports, the family secret was out there for the entire world to see. No, not the al Qaeda "the West is making war on Islam," canard, but an earlier al Qaeda call to overthrow the corrupt leaders of the Arab countries. Al Qaeda has to come up with the "war on Islam" angle to justify September 11, 2001, and earlier attacks. But the root cause is bad leadership at home.
The Palestinians have used terrorism against each other, as well as the Israelis, and it has not worked. The Arab states that donate so much money to the Palestinians have noted that, as well as the fact that Palestinians supported Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and the threat to keep going (had not the American led coalition promptly shown up.) Palestinians continue to support al Qaeda, which is still at war with the Arab nations Palestinians depend on for payroll money.
So when the king of Saudi Arabia tells the assembled Arab leadership that they are the problem, you can take that as a sign of progress. But real progress it ain't. Arab leaders are victims of their own success. Their rule is based on corruption and police state tactics. Think East Europe before 1989. Big difference is that, although the populations of East Europe then, and the Arab world now, were both fed up with their leaders and governments, the Arabs are not willing to make as painless a switch as the East Europeans did in the 1990s. That's because the East Europeans had two choices; communism or democracy. The Arabs have three; despotism, democracy or Islamic dictatorship.
In Iraq and Gaza we see how the Islamic radicals react to democracy. They call it un-Islamic and kill those who disagree with them. The Arabs have to deal with this, and in Iraq they are. In Gaza they aren't. But the violence in Iraq has revealed another Arab problem. Even if you remove religion from the equation, not all Arabs are keen on democracy. In Iraq, the Sunni Arab minority believe it is their right (or responsibility) to run the country. This is a common pattern in Arab countries. One minority believes they are rulers by right, and that democracy is an abomination and un-Islamic (or at least inconvenient for the ruling minority). This is the pattern in nearly every Arab country.
But there is hope. One of the least known members of the Arab League, Mauritania, held elections four years ago and now have the only other, besides Iraq, freely elected Arab government. The divisions in Mauritania, with a population of less than four million, are between the Arab (about a third) and "former slaves" (black Africans from the south). Mauritania exists on the border between Arabs and Bantu (the ethnic group that predominates in Africa south of the Sahara). Blacks were the slaves, and slavery was formerly abolished only in 1981. But slavery still exists in Mauritania, but so does democracy. Like South Africa, and a lot of other places where "democracy won't work," it does. Not democracy like in the United States, or Europe, or anywhere else. Every democracy is different, just like every culture is different. Democracy is a messy, inefficient form of government, but compared to all the others, it tends to be preferred by most people.
Arabs, even Arab leaders, know they need democracy. They have tried everything else, and nothing else works. But democracy is strong medicine for the current Arab leadership, and many would rather just talk about it, and go no further. And that is the problem in the Arab world, especially among the Palestinians. Islamic terrorism is the result. The Palestinians have, to many of their Arab patrons, not gotten the message. Apparently some Palestinians realize this, but they won't admit it. The Palestinians are still obsessed with having it their way, especially if Western and Arab donors continue to subsidize the dream of destroying Israel.