Reihan Salam, an associate editor at The Atlantic and a fellow at the New America Foundation, offers the Bangladesh solution for solving the Israeli-Palestine crisis. Read his artilce at Forbes.
Over the last several weeks, the world has been focused on the fighting in Gaza, where 1.5 million Palestinians are ruled by an Islamist political movement committed to the destruction of the State of Israel. Yet several thousand miles away, voters in Bangladesh, a nation of over 150 million, have rejected Islamism and nationalist extremism in an extraordinary election. How is it that Gaza commands the attention of the Western press while a country that has roughly one hundred times the population merits barely a cursory mention? Simply put, Gaza fits a familiar Western narrative--passive Oriental victims, vicious Occidental aggressors--and Bangladesh does not. And so we Westerners tend to ignore Bangladesh rather than heed its lessons.
What are those lessons, exactly? The first and most important is that self-government works. For centuries, critics of democracy have argued that landless peasants or women or the uneducated or some other class of unfortunates can't be trusted with the franchise. Without some modicum of education or economic independence, so the argument goes, democratic elections will give rise of illiberal regimes that will cause all kinds of mischief. There is certainly some truth to this. Democracy tends to work best when it is founded on a rich array of civic institutions that can serve as watchdogs, and that takes a large and flourishing middle class. But democracies have another advantage, one that applies even to the poorest countries: They have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes.
Shortly after Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan, Henry Kissinger, who enthusiastically backed the Pakistani military regime's brutal campaign to crush Bangladesh's independence movement, contemptuously predicted that the country would end up as an "international basket case." And while it's certainly true that Bangladesh remains one of the world's poorest countries, it has managed remarkably well in the face of tremendous obstacles. Since independence in 1971, female literacy levels have sharply increased and the population growth rate has slowed. Moreover, Bangladesh now has a flourishing garment industry, which continues to do well in the face of the global economic downturn. These gains have occurred despite a dysfunctional political culture. In fact, you might say that the Bangladeshis, like the Italians, have learned to make do with a central government that doesn't work all that well. The December election booted out a coalition that made all kinds of promises--including, in the case of the Islamist party, the promise of eternal salvation--in favor of a coalition that promised to steal a little bit less than the other bums.
Bangladesh's great advantage, if you can call it that, is that the country is in charge of its own destiny. Yes, Bangladesh is extremely vulnerable to the threat of catastrophic climate change, which can be blamed on the rich countries of West. But Bangladeshis know that the rich countries of the West don't really give a damn. And sure, British imperialism caused untold damage over two centuries. But dwelling on that fact isn't going to fill your stomach. The politicians who've been looting from the public treasury are Bangladeshis, not conniving Western imperialists. So are the Islamist militants who've planted bombs and thrown acid in the faces of innocent women.
A few years ago, a number of very smart thinkers like Niall Ferguson and Max Boot offered a provocative reassessment of the British Empire. Far from colonialist oppressors, Ferguson and Boot noted that the British spread the rule of law and encouraged the development of valuable infrastructure that paved the way for economic growth and, over time, liberal democracy. Yet when you look at the actual history of British India, you see unencumbered British officials who imposed arbitrary rules that they could never get away with at home. Imperialists hardly ever live by their highest ideals. Power corrupts.
The tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that the Palestinians have never enjoyed true self-government. Hamas can always blame Israel for its failures. And Israel, very understandably, is not willing to give Hamas enough room to fail--giving Hamas room enough room to fail would, after all, leave Israel extremely vulnerable. Some have proposed bringing in an international peacekeeping force to police the borders of Gaza and the West Bank, which would be trusted by both sides.
Which leads me to my last thought: Why not ask Bangladesh?