DURING THEIR PRESS CONFERENCE in Crawford, Texas, this week, President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon referred several times to Palestinian democracy. Bush, for example, mentioned his "vision of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side." Sharon said the Palestinians should "choose the path of democracy and law and order."
But there was little in their words or body language to suggest that this democracy talk was anything more than lip service. An Arab Palestine in which ordinary citizens could freely criticize their rulers? In which political power wasn't monopolized by terrorist groups? In which the government didn't stoke the fires of anti-Semitism in order to deflect attention from its own corruption? In which there was freedom of speech and conscience? In which the outcome of elections wasn't predetermined? No -- that sort of genuine and vibrant democracy seemed far removed from anything that Bush or Sharon was expecting, let alone demanding, from Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.
In Sharon's case, this comes as no surprise. Like his predecessors dating back to Yitzhak Rabin, Sharon has never regarded the democratizing of Palestinian society as a priority. Quite the contrary. Believing that only an iron-fisted ruler could suppress terrorism and make peace, Israeli leaders have actually welcomed Palestinian autocracy. In a notorious comment early in the Oslo years, Rabin assured Israelis that Yasser Arafat would be able to crack down on terrorism since he, unlike Israeli authorities, could operate "bli bagatz u'bli betselem" -- unhampered by a supreme court or by human rights groups. The absence of Palestinian democracy and civil liberties, far from being seen as a root of terrorism, was hailed as a boon in fighting it.
But if Sharon has never believed that Arab democracy is essential to peace and progress, the same can't be said about Bush. No contemporary political leader has championed freedom and self-government for the people of the Middle East more fervently. None has argued with more conviction that the key to ending terrorism and the fanaticism that spawns it is decent, democratic governance. None has proclaimed a more sweeping doctrine of liberation and human dignity. "It is the policy of the United States," he avowed in his second inaugural address, "to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."
In recent months, the bubbling of democratic ferment has lifted hopes across the Middle East. In Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Kuwait, even in Syria and Saudi Arabia, an "Arab spring" is beginning to transform what has been till now the most reactionary region on earth. Sooner than anyone predicted, Bush's faith in democratic revolution has begun to bear fruit -- to seem not just idealistic, but realistic.
If that faith should have special relevance anywhere, it is in the Palestinian Authority. For it was with regard to the Palestinians that Bush first expressed the idea that diplomatic gains and international legitimacy must be linked to democratic reform. In June 2002, he declared that before there could be a Palestinian state, there would have to be "a new and different Palestinian leadership . . . not compromised by terror." Palestinian society, he said, must become "a practicing democracy based on tolerance and liberty."
But with no corresponding Israeli interest in promoting Palestinian reform, Bush's principled stand came to naught. Arafat was shunned, but Sharon embraced Arafat's longtime crony Abbas -- a PLO veteran deeply "compromised by terror." Instead of making Palestinian progress on human rights and freedom the price of further Israeli concessions, Sharon announced that Israel would unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip and expel the Jews living there. Sharon's retreat will do nothing to encourage democracy. It will simply condemn a million Gaza Arabs to the permanent despotism of the Palestininan Authority.
In Crawford, Bush loyally described Sharon's plan as "courageous," but he must know that it is nothing of the sort. It is a blow to Israeli democracy no less than to Arab democracy, and a blow to the cause of Middle East freedom for which the United States is sacrificing so much.
For the first time in Israel's history, the United States is led by a president determined to see liberal democracy take root in the Arab world. For the first time, the Arab Middle East is alive with democratic possibility. Never has there been a better opportunity to transform Palestinian society from a dangerous, hate-filled dictatorship into a civilized, self-governing democracy. If Israel squanders this chance to nurture liberty and tolerance in its own back yard, it may never get another.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)