Al-Buniya al-Qanuniya wa al-Tahawul al-Dimukrati fi Filastin.
The Palestinians are yet to have a state. They are not even citizens in their own homeland. Nevertheless, many analysts have already reached the conclusion that the Palestinians have produced or are destined to produce a democratic society. Ali Jarbawi, a professor at Birzeit University, warns against such hasty tendencies. He cautions us about the pitfalls of confusing democracy with institutional arrangements. His central argument is that democracy is a dynamic societal process within a legal framework. This process cannot be imposed from the top but can be co-opted by those in positions of leadership.
Analysts have pointed to the existence of a semi multi-party system in Palestinian society arguing that such plurality of actors insures democracy. Jarbawi disagrees and argues that plurality is a condition for democracy but does not guarantee its existence or even its development. Plurality may exist, but its presence could easily be co-opted by a charismatic leadership that monopolizes decision-making. A clear implication here points to the Palestinian Authority and its manipulation by a "charismatic" leader. Understandably, Jarbawi avoids finger pointing throughout his book. Any reasonably intelligent reader, however, can easily pick up on Jarbawi's targets.
Similar arguments prevail in regard to the phenomenon of political elections. Palestinian political life, those proponents argue, is full of elections. Palestinians have always had elections for labor unions, Islamic councils, student councils, business bureaus, and even for a president and a legislative council. The Palestine Liberation Organization also had a history rich in electoral processes. Elections, however important, are nothing more than a mechanism for democratic life but, according to Jarbawi, they do not guarantee democracy.
Even though Palestinian society has some features that imply democratic practices, Jarbawi argues that it has serious weaknesses and may not be able to produce a democratic system. Palestinian society, Jarbawi contends, remains traditional, patriarchal and has, so far, developed a system whereby the executive branch has effectively monopolized decision-making powers. The system under the Palestinian Authority has many problems that do not encourage the development of a democratic culture.
The current political setting, Palestinian long-standing tradition of personalization of politics and the dominant political culture are all obstacles to democratization. Jarbawi, however, remains hopeful that democratization is possible. His last and longest chapter is devoted to a blueprint on the transition to democracy. He emphasizes the role of the Legislative Council as an imperative corner of democracy. The Council, he argues, should revisit the Printing and Publications Law. This law was adopted prior to the election of the Council and limits basic freedoms of the press. That law is limiting and gives the executive branch control over the press. Without free press, the author argues, there cannot be a true democratic system. Jarbawi then suggests revisiting other similar laws on non-governmental organizations, political parties, and not for profit organizations.
Jarbawi also places great emphasis on the separation of powers. His tone becomes very pessimistic when he deals with the judicial branch. The system of justice established by the Palestinian Authority clearly leaves a lot to be desired. The courts are subservient to the executive branch and, so far, have failed to hold the executive in check. Jarbawi is not the first to point to this serious weakness. But his eloquent plea for a transition to democracy in Palestine is, perhaps, most forceful.
Many books and articles have been published on the Palestinian authority and its practices. Those who visit the area get the feeling of being in just another Arab state. Even though Palestinians are yet to have a state, they have, so far, succeeded in creating another system similar to those of other Arab regimes. Jarbawi's book makes a serious attempt at correcting the course of Palestinian politics in order to produce a more humane system that is responsive to the aspirations of its own people. In that, Jarbawi is very successful.
Jamal R. Nassar is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science, Illinois State University, Normal. He is also a former editor of Arab Studies Quarterly.