October 22, 2003 | Op-ed

Of, by, and for

By Ariel Beery

In Congress, according to Michael Crowley of The New Republic, many Democrats are opposing the appropriations bill for Iraqi reconstruction mainly because it is being pushed by the Bush administration. In Europe, France is trying to build an alternative security organization to NATO mainly to check American power. And in Israel, lawmakers have negotiated Israeli concessions to Palestinians in what is known as the Geneva Accord, mainly to show their opposition to the elected government. These events are linked by a growing trend of undemocratic idealism in democratic politics.

Around the world, people are forgetting that democratic politics is the art of compromise, of pragmatic acceptance of the decisions of democratic institutions. It is certainly important to fight for what one believes in within the democratic framework, and dissent should absolutely be voiced and marketed in the marketplace of ideas. But the new variety of no-compromise idealism portrayed in the cases above is leading to increased polarization, which endangers the concept of democratic governance. There is no better example of this danger than the Geneva Accord, the latest in a number of extra-governmental negotiations initiated by former Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian Minister of Information Yasser Abed Rabbo.

The agreement itself, which will be signed on Nov. 4, is interesting, but not earth-shattering. I agree with many of its tenets and support dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. But this is taking it a step too far. The manner in which the Accord was negotiated has the potential to make it one of the worst blows to peace in the region since the rejection of the accords negotiated at Camp David in 2000 and the commencement of the current round of violence.

A peace agreement leading to more violence? It is a phenomenon all too familiar to the people of the Middle East, who have seen it happen before with the failure of the Oslo Accords. The potential for further violence in this case is especially high because of the identities of the signatories. On the Israeli side, we have two politicians who failed to convince their own people that they can be trusted with affairs of state: Beilin and former Labor Party Chairman Amram Mitzna. Both have such low levels of support among the Israeli electorate that they were forced to bow out of democratic politics altogether, taking their show on the road. On the Palestinian side there is Rabbo, who fell out of favor with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat in 2000, and who has therefore lost much of his influence in Palestinian affairs. The fact that only a political outsider can negotiate with Israel, as well as the fact that the moderate former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas was only recently undermined by Arafat, shows that Israel really has no negotiating partner with any substantial power in the Palestinian Authority.

These marginal characters, rejected by their own societies and governments, have no chance of seeing the Accord through or convincing their respective legislatures to adopt it even as a framework to work around. The agreement does not create hope–it kills it.

What these self-proclaimed doves have forgotten is that one cannot negotiate for a people that one does not represent. A representative cannot profess to be for the people when he or she was not chosen by them. And the people do have an opinion: only 27 percent of Israelis support the agreement, according to a New Wave poll published in the Israeli newspaper Maariv–in stark contrast to the nearly two-thirds of Israelis who support a bi-national solution, according to polls by the Peace Index Project of Tel Aviv University.

The problem with idealism was explained by the philosopher Max Weber, who distinguished between what he called the “ethic of ultimate ends” and the “ethic of responsibility.” The ethic of ultimate ends is the idealism embodied by Beilin, Mitzna, and Rabbo. It is when one is interested exclusively in achieving a specific goal without considering the means taken to do so, and will therefore do anything to try to achieve that goal without giving thought to the side effects of one's actions.

In this case, Beilin and Mitzna ignored the possibility that the Accord could provide an incentive to the Palestinian leadership to not deal with the democratically elected leadership of Israel, in the hope that a future administration might agree to the compromises met in the Accord. Such an incentive to delay until a more favorable government is elected–which, according to current political trends, may take a very long time–would draw out the conflict and increase the bloodshed. And again, two Maariv opinion polls show that Israelis are ready to make hard compromises for peace, and yet are opposed to this initiative led by unelected former politicians.

In a democracy, to paraphrase the political theorist Michael Walzer, one has the duty to compete for popular opinions, but must agree that the decision of the people is what is right–within bounds, of course. Beilin, Mitzna, and their supporters on this venture worldwide are doing exactly the opposite. They are proposing that they know what is best for the people. They would crown themselves as Platonic philosopher kings and do what they perceive to be right against the will of the people, even if the people will have to pay the price with their blood. And that is not only undemocratic; it is also wrong.

Ariel Beery is an Undergraduate Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.