Making Democracy Work in the Middle East

Making Democracy Work in the Middle East

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

As one moves around Israel, it is evident that Israelis on the ground are functioning function with a degree of normalcy that makes all the Jewish worrywarts in the Diaspora look foolish. No one denies their problems on a multitude of levels, but like most Americans, Israelis are first and foremost looking out for their economic well-being, the quality of education, the availability of housing, roads and infrastructure, etc. They are more concerned about Government spending on additional inter-city train lines or local trams than terrorists’ incidents. To be clear they are not cavalier about random attacks against civilians, but they are not agonizing about it.

This attitude is refreshing and inherently positive, but everyone understands that the overriding issues are not going away. Leaving politics for another occasion, Israelis recognize that they face existential issues, but they are not running scared.  Israelis believe that the United States fundamentally does not understand the Middle East and the Arab world.  There is a sense that from Tunisia to Syria to Iraq to Afghanistan, American decision-makers from the White House down are operating under a total illusion as to what can reasonably be achieved through Western intercession in the region. This is true among secularists and religious Israelis and everyone in between. The failure and delusion among American leaders, it is suggested, comes from a totally mis-guided notion that everyone can become a liberal democrat if they so desire.

Unfortunately Israelis have this theory of history on their side since the days of Woodrow Wilson and his Fourteen Points. The Viet-Nam’s tragic resolution did not teach America very much about its capacity to export democracy, in this case to South-East Asia.  The conclusion and then the non-end to the Iraq War is only a further evidence of this well-intentioned failure; no matter how many purple fingers are held in the air by citizens after voting in Iraqi elections. There is a huge difference in trying to build democratic institutions and struggling to educate people about democratic systems on the one hand; and imposing—virtually overnight—a set or political organs which are fundamentally antithetical to their entire political history and tradition.

Into this global effort enters the State of Israel which is a democracy and which is still struggling after over 66 years to sustain itself as a viable democracy. Israelis, in this regard, resent the spot into which they feel they have been placed.  As Washington persists in trying pursue democratic change in the region they argue, it is doing so at the expense of the one—however flawed– democracy in the region,   

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