Just one country in the Middle East decides national policy through elections.
IN THE DAYS following the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, there was a stream of commentary from the Arab world about how Israel was just like its Middle East neighbors after all. For anyone who was tempted to believe that, last week's nail-biter of an Israeli election must have been a jolting reality check.
Every now and then it is useful to say something that goes without saying. So let us pause to note the obvious: Nowhere in the Middle East -- save Israel -- do hotly contested elections take place. Nowhere in the Middle East -- save Israel -- are rulers accountable to the people. Nowhere in the Middle East -- save Israel -- are disputes over national policy ultimately resolved by voters.
That is why so much was riding on the outcome of Israel's vote.
When Belgians or Americans or New Zealanders go to the polls, they do not fear that if they make the wrong choice, bombs may kill their children. They can take for granted the continued existence of their country within secure frontiers. The last thing they worry about is a military attack by neighbors over some unresolved dispute.
But for Israelis, security is always on the line. Peace is never a given. Unlike Belgians, Americans, or New Zealanders, they cannot assume a basic goodwill on the part of their neighbors. Not only because hundreds of millions of Arabs still hope for Israel's elimination (including Yasser Arafat, who continues to voice that hope in Arab forums), but because such goodwill is nonexistent in Arab statecraft.
Settling disputes peaceably -- democratically at home, diplomatically abroad -- is the Western, not the Arab, way. No Arab state has peaceful and friendly relations with all its neighbors; no Arab state holds free elections to choose its leaders. Every one is a dictatorship; some more benign than others, but dictatorships all. While Benjamin Netanyahu will hold power only until the next election, Hafez al-Assad will hold power until he dies or is overthrown. Likewise Hosni Mubarak. Likewise Saddam Hussein. Likewise Arafat.
Israelis are like law-abiding citizens walking through a gang-infested neighborhood: They cannot let their guard down. They can never be sure, when they turn a corner, what lethal dangers await. Is it any wonder they debate so furiously whether to turn right or left?
In 1992, the Jewish state turned left. Now it is heading right, and for good reason. The quixotic "peace process" of Rabin and Shimon Peres has proven a dangerous fantasy; an incubator not of peace but of new violence. Witness the buses that kept exploding, even as Israel kept relinquishing territory; witness Arafat's unending calls for jihad; witness Hezbollah's Syria-sponsored rain of Katyushas into northern Israel. Last week, voters concluded that Labor's defeatist strategy of concessions wasn't working, and turned to Likud's more confident, more hopeful vision of peace through strength. History will have the final word on whether they chose wisely.
But Western political and media elites aren't waiting for history. A wave of sour disapproval greeted Netanyahu's election. On CBS, to take one egregious example, Dan Rather actually equated the Israeli vote with the latest killings in Lebanon. To liberal opinion-makers, of course, it is always a disaster when conservatives are elected. Much of the keening over Likud's democratic victory in Israel comes from those who have been wailing ever since the Republican victory in America two years ago. (Though not all the Bibi-bashers are liberal: Conservative commentator Robert Novak snarled on CNN at "the majority of Jews in Israel who said, 'The hell with you, United States. ... We'll pick our own prime minister.' ")
The irony, of course, is that no one will ever bewail the results of a Syrian election or rue the outcome of a close Palestinian vote.
For in the Arab world, ballots mean little; bullets confer authority. "Set up by Muslims for Muslims," David Pryce-Jones, the acclaimed author and lifelong student of Arab culture, wrote in 1989, "every Arab state is explicitly Islamic in confession. Religious and ethnic minorities have been persecuted everywhere. Nowhere is there participation in the political process corresponding to any conception of representative democracy. No parliament or assembly except by appointment of the power holder, no freedom of expression throughout rigidly state-controlled media, no opinion polls, nothing except a riot to determine what public opinion might be." Such is the unchanging reality of Middle East politics. It is what makes Israeli elections not just unique, but fateful.
Where democracy takes root, bitter enemies can become friends: Belgium's border with Germany is placid today. But where democratic values are alien, where the tradition is not debate-then-decide but rule-or-die, true peace is a rarity.
Cast a cold eye on Netanyahu, if you like, but give the Israelis their due. Among the nations of the Middle East, only they conduct impassioned national debates on the question of what to sacrifice for the sake of peace. Only they hold election campaigns over how much land to give up so that their enemies will become their friends. Indeed, only they hold elections.