These are days of momentous change in the Middle East. Courageous thousands have flooded the streets demanding their rights as citizens and as human beings. Calls for democracy — as a system of values that seeks to protect these rights — stem not from some foreign dictate but from an inner hunger for freedom.
Much has been said in recent years about the "clash of civilizations," about the conflict between extremists and moderates, between coercion and freedom. And yet today, this battle is being waged at least as much within societies as between them.
In the best-case scenario, the wave sweeping across the region will enable democracy to take root in the Arab world — not merely as a government system but as a values system that embraces nonviolence, coexistence, freedom, opportunity and equality. It offers the unprecedented possibility in the Middle East for a peace between peoples.
But the negative scenario is that this opening will be abused by those for whom democratic values are foreign and who seek to use the democratic process to advance an antidemocratic agenda. Another possibility is the emergence of weak regimes — of which this region already has too many — that feel compelled to appease extremists at the expense of their own people.
Israel is not a mere observer of these developments. The direction they take directly affects whether Israel can live in this region in peace. Like many Israelis, I am committed to ending the conflict between us and the Palestinians on the basis of two states for two peoples in order to best secure Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state. After leading intense negotiations with the Palestinian side, I believe that reaching this peace, though difficult and heart-wrenching, is possible.
Alongside the hope that democracy will take hold in Egypt, there are concerns whether in the absence of Hosni Mubarak — a leader who kept a "cold" peace and promoted Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation — a more radical agenda will develop and antidemocratic forces will be empowered.
But mere anxiety is not a policy for any leader. The values and experience of the Jewish people demand that we embrace the promise of real democratic change, not merely express concern about uncertainties associated with it. World leaders are required to shape events so that our collective aspirations, rather than our fears, become reality. There are actions the international community can take to advance this objective.
The free world has long recognized that democracy is about values before it is about voting. In the 1930s, Europe showed that a democratic process divorced of values can have devastating results. Since then, democratic nations have enshrined the idea that democracy is more than elections and that those seeking to be elected must commit to key democratic principles. In Israel, for example, parties are ineligible to participate in elections if their platform embraces racist or antidemocratic doctrines (as was the case with the disqualified Kach movement in 1988).
In the Middle East, we have already paid the price of neglecting these principles. In the case of Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, the international community limited its conception of democracy to the technical process of voting. The result was to give a measure of democratic legitimacy and power to armed radical movements that are plainly not committed to democratic principles, that maintain independent militias and that pose a danger to their societies and neighbors.
Current events in the Middle East highlight the urgency of adopting at the global level what true democracies apply at the national level — a universal code for participation in democratic elections. This would include requiring every party running for office to embrace, in word and deed, a set of core democratic principles: the renunciation of violence and the acceptance of state monopoly over the use of force, the pursuit of aims by peaceful means, commitment to the rule of law and to equality before the law, and adherence to international agreements to which their country is bound.
Such a code could guide election monitors and individual nations in deciding whether to grant parties democratic legitimacy. It would put all societies on notice that electing an undemocratic party would have negative international consequences.
The intent here is not to stifle disagreement or to suggest that democracy be uniform, disregarding local cultures and values. The goal is to advance a democratic process that is inclusive but that cannot be hijacked for nondemocratic ends.
This initiative is merely one way international leadership could make a real difference. Without swift action, this concept risks being overtaken by events. A universal standard, applied to all states, that empowers those truly committed to democracy and disempowers the extremists who seek to abuse it, offers an opportunity to advance the free world's hopes, confront our fears and answer the call of thousands throughout the Middle East.
Tzipi Livni, a former vice prime minister and minister of foreign affairs of Israel, is head of the Israeli opposition and leader of the Kadima Party.
© 2011 Washington Post