Silvan Shalom, Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, discussed the importance—and difficulties—of democracy in the Middle East at a speech last night to a packed room at the Taubman Building at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG).
In the talk, which was sponsored by the Belfer Center on Science and International Affairs at KSG, Shalom said the Middle East and Arab nations are undergoing rapid changes.
“What we are seeing in the Arab world today could be described as a political earthquake,” he said, reading from prepared remarks. “The repression of the past is today making way for a new dynamic.”
Shalom pointed to the current situation in Lebanon, where the Lebanese people have pushed Syria to end its involvement in their country, and to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s announcement that Egypt will now conduct multi-party elections, as signs that “the Middle East is choosing freedom.”
But Shalom acknowledged that growing democracy “is raising fears as to the consequences of such openness.”
He said that some fear democratic elections will allow extremist groups to take power and pointed to the recent elections in Iraq—in which a Shia government won a majority—as an example.
Shalom made references to when the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took power in Iran, saying that Khomeini’s extremist Shia regime originally claimed to be “moderate.”
“Despite these concerns,” Shalom said, “I do not believe that we have the right to say that certain peoples should not enjoy the freedoms of democracy.”
Shalom also spent much of his talk addressing the Israel-Palestine conflict.
He said the death of Palestinian Liberation Organization Chair Yasser Arafat—who he called an “enem[y] of freedom”—created the opportunity for positive change for the Palestinian people.
He added that “the Palestinians must take urgent and effective steps to shut down the terrorist groups that have taken Palestinian society hostage.”
But he was critical of the new Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who “has yet to show that he is ready to take such measures.”
Shalom fielded a number of questions from the favorable audience about Israel’s recent decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, where a number of Israeli settlers live.
He admitted that the pullout would be very difficult, as many families have lived in settlements for generations.
“I don’t say it’s easy. It’s not,” he said.