Can Autocracy Breed Democracy in the West Bank?

A very real challenge of state-building — particularly in areas devoid of institutionalized democracy — is striking the right balance between strong top-down leadership and social inclusivity. The cold efficiency of executive authority and the beautiful chaos of pluralism. Lean too heavily in either direction, and you may wind up with either a dangerous precedent of quasi-authoritarianism or a political system paralyzed by protracted and irreconcilable debate.

And this dilemma isn't only an academic abstraction to be debated by political scientists. We're seeing a version of it play out as we speak in the West Bank, where, as the Economist recently explained, concerns are growing about the leadership of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Few, if any, question his credentials. As a former senior official at both the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, he is considered eminently qualified to help create the economic and institutional conditions necessary for an independent and successful Palestinian state. Fayyad has a reputation for fighting rampant corruption and breathing fresh air into a Palestinian Authority that long ago lost the public's trust. His comprehensive plan for Palestinian independence by 2011, presented one year ago this week, has been hailed by many as not only a sound framework for political and economic development, but also as a brilliant way to leverage Israeli support for independence by mollifying many of Israel's persistent fears. This thoughtful and nonviolent approach has, unsurprisingly, endeared Fayyad to Western leaders and attracted millions in financial support.

So what's the problem? Well, for all of Fayyad's rhetorical support for democracy and its corresponding institutions, he is an undemocratically appointed leader who is effectively ruling by fiat. After this summer's municipal elections in the West Bank were summarily canceled, Fayyad explained the decision as part of the ongoing effort to mend fences with the Hamas government in Gaza. But it was the latest iteration in a series of broken electoral promises. Perhaps this is why civil society has exhibited signs of stagnation, even as economic growth in the West Bank outpaces much of the broader region. 

Along with a cabinet of around 20 members, Fayyad runs what has become an unaccountable government that many feel is stunting the development of a true democratic culture. "To the extent that Fayyadism is building institutions, it is unmistakably doing so in an authoritarian context," wrote George Washington University professor Nathan Brown in a piece for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And this begs the question: Can autocratic state-building succeed in producing responsible democratic governance and a stable society, particularly in a region that is saturated with authoritarian and irresponsible rulers?

Western governments certainly want to believe that the answer is yes. They see Fayyad as perhaps the Palestinians' best hope for the kind of enduring reform and political moderation needed to move the ball forward on negotiations with Israel. In the three years since the bloody fracture of the Palestinian polity during the summer of 2007, no leader has been able to put the pieces back together in any sort of workable configuration, and this has created the distinct impression within Israel that the current Palestinian leadership lacks the strength to engage in serious peace discussions, much less produce an internal constituency supportive of them.

In that sense, perhaps a hefty dose of "Fayyadism" is exactly what the Palestinian community needs — if nothing else, it may demonstrate a certain level of economic capacity that will both impress the Israelis and further isolate Hamas, which has been unable to deliver similar levels of prosperity for those in Gaza, albeit under very different circumstances. Should Israel choose to reward Fayyad's efforts by making concessions on settlements or reducing its security regime, it could serve as a positive incentive for Hamas to signficantly reform its behavior for fear of being excluded from negotiations over statehood.

Yet what is best for short-term peacemaking may not lay the requisite political groundwork to sustain such a peace. And shirking democratic development for the expediency of autocracy, while alluring for politicians who desperately want an end to the conflict, may end up creating a new generation of disaffected Palestinians who are reluctant to engage in a political process that disenfranchised them at the exact moment when the fate of their state was being negotiated. 

Josh is a graduate of James Madison University where he earned a degree in International Affairs and Middle Eastern Communities. After spending his junior year studying at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, Josh moved to Tel Aviv to serve as a volunteer coordinator for Amnesty International’s Israel Section, working to promote awareness of Israel’s less-talked about humanitarian crisis: the influx of African refugees.