- Democratization in the Middle EastQuandaries of the Peace Process
The notion that democracies rarely wage wars against each other has gained remarkable acceptance in scholarly and policy circles. At the same time, a number of observers have expressed concern that incipient democratization in some Arab countries may pose a threat to the nascent peace between Israel and its neighbors. Are democratization and peace mutually exclusive or mutually supportive in this region? What are the dilemmas each process poses for the other?
The democratic-peace theory has found significant—but not unchallenged—acceptance among academic experts, who compete in their explanations of why democratic states are unlikely to wage wars among themselves. 1 Some trace it to a Kantian conception of citizens’ consent: the legitimacy granted by the domestic public of one liberal democracy to the elected representatives of another is said to moderate tendencies toward violent solutions among democracies. Others aver that free speech, electoral cycles, and the public-policy process restrain the ability of democratic leaders to pursue extreme policies toward fellow democracies. Reciprocal transparency—the joint availability of abundant information on each other's domestic evaluations of a policy—is also expected to stem war. Moreover, democracies respect the rule of law and undertake more credible and durable commitments to each other, which strengthens their reputation as predictable partners.
These reinforcing normative, institutional, and instrumental restraints, however, operate only when democracies face each other—not when they face nondemocratic opponents. In such cases, the nondemocratic opponents’ lack of popular accountability, legitimacy, transparency, and [End Page 139] credibility cancels out the otherwise moderating effects of institutional checks and balances that prevail in relations among countries with democratic forms of government.
The absence for many decades of democratic partners in the Middle East correlated with extensive military conflict, both in the Arab-Israeli arena and beyond. 2 However, Egypt and Israel shifted gears with the Camp David agreement, and more recently, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel and Jordan have subscribed to the notion of a peaceful resolution of conflicts. These developments cannot be traced to the interaction of fully democratic partners; Israel has generally been considered, with some caveats, to be the only democracy in the region. Nor do these developments invalidate the democratic-peace theory, which only claims to create sufficient conditions for the absence of war, but not to be a necessary prerequisite for the outbreak of peace. Thus democracy may not have been necessary for the birth of peace, but will democracy prove a key to its survival? Alternatively, could democratization in the region endanger the cooperation achieved so far?
Experiences with Democratization
Democratization throughout the Arab world has been uneven, slow, and relatively recent, compelling a cautious characterization of this process as incipient. Yet even incipient democratization enables us to differentiate among regimes with varying degrees of democratic attributes, over time (in the same country) and across countries. Democratization involves movement toward a political system that Robert A. Dahl terms “polyarchy,” with elected officials, free and fair elections, inclusive suffrage, the right to run for office, freedom of expression, alternative information protected by law, and associational autonomy. 3 These institutional characteristics are universal (even if their strength and mix are not), and cannot be modified by relativist and exceptionalist concepts derived from different religious, cultural, or other doctrinal sources. Democratization involves the incremental attainment of these characteristics: the more elements of this formula that are present in a given polity, and the more fully they operate in practice, the farther the polity is on the path to democracy. I use the terms “nondemocratic” and “authoritarian” interchangeably to indicate a state that has not yet attained such characteristics, even if it has entered some of the initial transitional phases.
By these standards, Israel is the only democratic country in the region, and then only within its 1967 borders. Continued Israeli control over the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza was at odds with most of Dahl's criteria. Progressive withdrawal from these areas, as a result of the Oslo and Taba agreements and continuing negotiations [End Page 140] over the areas’ final status, would remove an important...