The role of leadership in a democracy

History is mostly a process of trial and error. Most people in any sort of activity or trade learn from their mistakes and make sure to avoid them. In politics, though, things may be slightly different. When leaders commit serious mistakes, they step aside and let others take charge. Politicians can only err once.

Many factors have been, over the decades, contributing to the ongoing tragedy of the Palestinian people. One in particular is the evident inability of the Palestinian leadership, the PLO and the Palestinian Authority (PA) to conduct a regular review of their disastrous performance and policies. It does indeed require a lot more courage to engage in a serious process of introspection, see and acknowledge with a higher degree of responsibility one’s own mistakes, than simply engage in a self-redeeming and often futile effort to rationalise and justify. But that also requires honesty, a great deal of self denial, limitless dedication to the cause and an unquestionable commitment to the trust people placed in their leaders.

It is very painful to have to write these words at the same time as the Israeli bulldozers, which have been tearing apart President Yasser Arafat’s presidential compound, are now zeroing in on his office, putting his life in immediate danger. At a time when the situation is worsening by the minute, it is very hard to imagine what will emerge by the time this article goes to print. It may also be utterly distasteful and inopportune to raise such a sensitive issue when the Palestinian leadership is under attack from every direction. That may sound sensible enough, but at the same time, it will be utterly hypocritical, cowardly and outright wrong if everyone kept his head down and his mouth tightly shut about what is much more important, much more tragic and much more worthy of the world’s attention: the barbaric cruelty to which the Palestinians have been subjected, not only for the last two years, but for the last fifty four.

Since the Israeli tanks tightened the siege on Arafat’s headquarters and started demolishing and shelling, following the killing of eight Israelis in two consecutive suicide bombings on Sept. 18 and 19, the president and his aides have been demanding immediate Arab, European, American and international intervention to rescue him and to stop the Israeli aggression. That is absolutely correct and normal, even if the rescue may turn out to be costly as was the case during the last siege. What is not normal, though, and indeed very amazing, is that no cries for stopping the Israeli aggression were heard when Palestinians were killed daily, when their houses were demolished, when the siege on over one million of them was tightened, when they were starved, when they were subjected to endless curfews and unprecedented humiliation.

The six weeks which ended on Sept. 18 with the first suicide bombing and which the media described as “a period of calm” (simply due to the absence of suicide bombings) witnessed the worst Israeli cruelty against the Palestinians. Thirty nine Palestinian civilians, including seven children, two women and 15 teenagers were killed by the Israelis in the month of August alone. One 9-year-old Palestinian child was shot dead by the Israeli army in Ramallah on Sept. 19. In addition to the many deaths and injuries of Palestinians in the so-called period of calm, there were daily Israeli tank and bulldozer incursions in Palestinian towns, villages and camps where civilians were terrorised, their property and farms destroyed and many of them arrested. Nothing of that, it seemed, deserved any cries for help or international intervention, as if the Palestinian Authority is also starting to see Israeli violence against Palestinians as a matter of less concern.

The situation in which the Palestinian leader is in now is certainly grave and humiliating, but not one single Palestinian under occupation is any better. Any effort to rescue the besieged leader should take into consideration that a whole population is also under siege and it deserves equal attention. It is so grotesque that the kind of response to the “presidential distress calls” is often an assurance that “the Israelis promised not to kill or harm President Arafat personally”. The dreadful implication is that anything short of killing should be fine, including leaving him and his entourage for weeks, last March and of course now, without electricity, water, food, phone line or medicine, and subjecting him to constant threat and humiliation. Worse is also the intimation that if there is a promise not to harm the president physically nothing else of what is fiercely inflicted on his people should matter.

Rescuing the Palestinian leader is, unquestionably, urgently and immediately required. But equally urgent action is required for the long term. It is time Palestinian leaders realise that supplication and volunteering concessions to the occupier at the expense of their people did nothing more, so far, than have them face additional prohibitive demands. It is time that all those corrupt opportunists who hijacked a noble and grand national cause and reduced it to mere personal gains and vain privileges thrown at them contemptuously by the enemy; those who transformed government and nation building into a closed degenerate monopoly; those who treated Palestine as their and their families private farm; those who defamed and distorted the Palestinian image ; it is time that they stepped aside and left the floor for the many qualified and principled people who have so far been excluded from any office for the most autocratic and ignominious reasons.

The PA should have the courage, the honesty, and the national will to review the policies, including the infamous Oslo Deal of which the current miserable state of the Palestinians and their leadership is only an inevitable and a direct result. Oslo is a dark chapter in Palestinian history. It was forged in the darkness of duplicity and deceit behind the backs of the honorable Palestinian negotiators who were strenuously and sincerely struggling for their rights in Washington DC at the time. It was an Israeli project to legitimize the Israeli occupation and to consolidate all the Israeli war gains with Palestinian approval, while shifting the burdens of the occupation to the Palestinian Authority as the Palestinian share of that shameful deal.

Unless basic policy blunders are recognised and reversed and unless the people who are responsible for them are distanced, if not held accountable, there will be no hope for any improvement. It is not “reform” Israeli-American style that will lay the solid foundations on which healthy institutions and a real state can be built. It is not a one-time election that can build democracy. What are needed, and needed now, are leaders not idols. Leaders who would establish a clean administration, open the floor in a real democracy for all the Palestinians to contribute in the decision-making process, away from intimidation and fear, and build a sound national strategy for a future of peace based on justice and security.

The writer is former ambassador and permanent representative of Jordan to the UN.