Israel/Palestine Democracy


On April 14th, the Boston Globe published an editorial called “Does Israel want Arab Democracy?” The author of the article, Jeff Jacoby, began with the question of whether Palestinian political culture (which he refers to as an uncivilized “dangerous, hate-filled dictatorship”) has an interest in democracy, human rights, and peace with Israel. He questions if there can be “an Arab Palestine in which ordinary citizens could freely criticize their rulers?” He also asks whether there can be freedom of speech and conscience and whether Palestinians would be able to create a political system where the outcome of elections were not predetermined: “[T]hat sort of genuine and vibrant democracy [is] far removed from anything that Bush or Sharon was expecting, let alone demanding, from Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority”. Additionally, he suggests that the time is ripe for Israel to “nurture liberty and tolerance in its own back yard”. Further the article suggests that because the United States “is led by a president determined to see liberal democracy take root in the Arab world….for the first time ever, the Arab Middle East is alive with democratic possibility”.

What interests me about this article are Jacoby’s “common sense” assumptions about Israeli and Palestinian society, and the differences between the two. Though he isn’t saying anything which would strike right-wing pundits as out of the ordinary, the article reminded me of how common it is for writers, such as Jacoby, to publish misinformed and manipulative pieces in mainstream newspapers. He employs the usual myths about the conflict: that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, and that the Palestinian people live in fear of their government and have little understanding of democracy. The essay suggests that Israel is a peace-loving “western” nation surrounded by hateful and irrational Arab nations. He further claims that only liberal democracies have respect for human rights. He concludes by stating that only the United States, along with Israel, can bring democracy and human rights to the Arab people. Below I attempt to demonstrate that such “facts” about the conflict are far from obvious or factual. First, the question of Israel as the only liberal democracy in the Middle East needs to be explored.

Jacoby makes a grave mistake when he proclaims Israel is a liberal democracy. While Israel does have political elections, a parliamentary system, and a legal system where political rights are protected, it is not instituted in a territorial manner like most “western” democracies, but, rather, it is based on blood/ethnicity. Israel does not have a national constitution. Liberal democracy exists where ALL citizens within a state’s territory are afforded equal rights through constitutional guarantee. Thus Israel, a state that differentiates groups of people based on ethnic/religious definitions and enacts structural barriers and discrimination against its minorities, cannot be considered a liberal democracy. For the first 20 years of its existence, Palestinians did not have citizenship in Israel; rather, they were governed by military rule in a “state of emergency”. The Palestinian “citizens” of Israel make up over 20% of the population yet they are prevented from enjoying the same privileges of citizenship as the Jewish population.

With regard to political participation, rights, and representation, Israeli laws directly discriminate against the Israeli Palestinians by restricting the terms of citizenship. One example is the “Basic Law: the Knesset, section 7A” passed by the Knesset (Israeli’s parliament) on May 15, 2002. The law empowers the central election committee to prohibit individuals and entire political parties from running for the Knesset if they either a) reject Israel’s identity as a “Jewish and democratic state”, or b)

Support the armed struggle of an enemy state or terrorist organization of Israel. The Law further requires candidates to make a formal declaration consistent with those provisions. They must say, “I pledge allegiance to the state of Israel and refrain from acting contrarily to principles of section 7A of the Basic Law: the Knesset”.

Thus the law prevents and limits free speech of elected representatives and outlaws the expression of support for the Intifada. It also restricts political participation to only those whose positions are supportive of official Israeli state ideology. While such undemocratic impulses and racist laws have existed in most liberal democracies at one time or another, they are not tolerated at least partly because constitutional provisions worked in favor of, rather than against, the interests of minority populations. As Israeli scholars Rouhana and Sultany observe:

Making the required pledge in effect bars the candidates (and needless to say, the candidates who are elected) from acting contrary to what they may consider racist and detrimental to their own community’s political rights, even using democratic and legal means. In essence, the pledge outlaws working toward changing the state’s political ideology even if this ideology is fundamentally in contradiction with democracy.

Another example is the Marriage Law. Renewed and extended by the Israeli parliament just last week, the law states that marriages between Israeli Palestinians and Palestinians living in the occupied territories will not be recognized by the Israeli state. No such marriage restrictions apply to Jewish Israelis.

Beyond those two brief examples, there are dozens of other legal barriers that prevent Arab citizens from full citizenship. Israel’s inability to become a liberal democracy stems from its origins and the ways that its laws define the nation. Because the Israeli state was not originally conceived of as a democratic state but, rather, as a state that would serve the interests of Jewish populations throughout the world, the ability of Palestinian “citizens” of Israel to gain equal rights is difficult, if not impossible, and the ability of Israel to function as a democratic leader is diminished.

Israel is different from other liberal democracies in another sense, in that it is a “borderless democracy”. The Law of Return which allows any Jew a “right to return” and further reduces the difference between real and potential citizenship. Only Jews have the right to immigrate creating a system whereby non-state individuals have more of a claim to citizenship than those (non-Jewish) individuals residing within the borders of the state.

Another mechanism that prevents Palestinian Israelis from full citizenship is the workings of two powerful non-governmental organizations: The Jewish Agency and the Jewish National fund. Holding massive influence over the government, the two groups have been in existence since before the state itself. Created with the intent of increasing settlement of Palestine and the acquisition of land, the two institutions were given special status after Israel declared independence. There are almost no institutional borders between them and the supposed democratic government (and they themselves are not democratic organizations). The two groups actually own most of the land in Israel. As stated in their by-laws, such lands will be held in perpetuity for the Jewish people only, and not for non Jewish Israeli citizens.

When Jacoby and others make the mistaken claim that Israel is the only liberal democracy in the Middle East, they also make the mistake of saying that Israel, “unlike” Arab neighbors, respects human rights. While it is true that many nations in the Middle East are guilty of human right violations, Israel is by no means innocent. In fact, according to international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Israel has an atrocious record. A report by Amnesty International two years ago entitled “Israel and the Occupied Territories: Shielded from Scrutiny,” documented the sustained and systematic nature of human right abuses by the Israeli military. The abuses catalogued in the report include, but are not limited to, the following: unlawful killings; torture of prisoners/detainees; intentional destruction of houses (sometimes with the residents still inside); making medicine inaccessible by the use of checkpoints; the denial of humanitarian assistance; using Palestinian civilians as “human shields” during military operations; preventing children from their right to education, and more. Specific events, such as the military invasion of Jenin, in which 4,000 people were displaced by the destruction of their homes, were described. Amnesty stated that, “Up to now the Israeli authorities have failed in their responsibility to bring to justice the perpetrators of serious human rights violations”. The report concluded with the statement that, “there will be no peace or security in the region until human rights are respected. All attempts to end human rights violations and install a system of international protection in Israel and the Occupied Territories, in particular by introducing monitors with a clear human rights mandate, have been undermined by the refusal of the government of Israel. This refusal has been supported by the USA.”

How is it possible for commentators such as Jacoby to suggest that Israel is so unlike Arab countries with respect to human rights? How can a country that controls millions of Palestinians, forcing them to live under a military occupation that affords them no political rights be considered a beacon of human rights in the region? The human rights abuses that Israel regularly commits are well documented and continue to this day. They include humiliation of Palestinians at checkpoints, house demolitions, massive levels of imprisonments without a charge, causing injury and death to peaceful demonstrators with tear gas, sound bombs, and rubber bullets, indiscriminate killings of non-combatant Palestinians, and so on. For commentators such as Jacoby to turn a blind eye to these obvious and accessible facts is negligent at best, and certainly anti-Arab.

It would not, however, be an impossible task to transform Israel into a liberal democracy, but for that it would take Israel, as Raef Zreik has written, to

call into question the tangled political and institutional links between Israel and the Jewish people as well as the special status of the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund and, to an extent, the Jewish law of return itself. Turning Israel into a state for all its citizens would end both the “over exclusion” of the Palestinian citizens from Israel civil and political life by ending the structural discrimination against them, and the “over inclusion” or privileged status of Jews who are not Israeli citizens in the political life of the state. In this way, the “superstructure” of the state would reflect the “infrastructure” of citizenship: demos would be born to replace the ethos. In the process, Israel would become a “normal” state, where statehood is a trust outside the public or political sphere.

The second part of Jacoby’s argument is that Palestinians, unlike Israelis, do not enjoy democratic institutions. While it is true that Palestinians have been granted a limited degree of autonomy in certain areas (less than 20%), how can Jacoby expect democracy to flourish when Palestinians are prevented and denied the basic conditions necessary for such institutions to take root and grow? Israel controls virtually every aspect of day to day life for Palestinians, including their economy.

Under such harsh conditions, it is extraordinary that Palestinians have built democratic institutions – institutions not encouraged by Israel or the United States, but on their own. In fact, Israel is guilty of trying to dismantle such institutions and practices in their attempts to control Palestinians more effectively. For instance, there are regular attacks on Palestinian police, government buildings and personnel. Multiple times over the past few years, Israeli forces have demolished the official Palestinian institutional ability to govern itself. After invading Ramallah a couple of years back, they proceeded to destroy the Mukhata and burn most of Palestine’s legal documents. Another example is the recent Presidential election. Widely regarded as “fair” by international observers, the most serious problems were not from Palestinians trying to vote, but with Israeli practices of intimidation toward candidates that they did not favor. Multiple times during the campaign season, Palestinian political candidates were detained, harassed, and even beaten. How can such undemocratic behavior by the state of Israel be thought of as compatible with supporting the development of democratic institutions?

Palestinians recently had municipal elections in which there were some surprising events. There was an upsurge of women political candidates, and almost half of those that ran for office won in their districts. Thus Palestinians, rather than being criticized for not having a working liberal democracy, should instead be applauded for their attempts and achievements at building democracy against adverse circumstances. Rather than the political process being “monopolized by terrorist groups”, as Jacoby claims, the recent round of elections encouraged the emergence of new players, parties, and a vibrant new political climate in Palestine. As opposed to Israel’s behavior of beating and detaining candidates that they do not favor, no such behavior occurred by the Palestinians.

In contrast to Jacoby’s ill formed perceptions of Palestinian (non)democracy, I and other international observers have witnessed an emerging democratic political culture that is both vibrant and respectful, while being oppressed by brutal and violent conditions. While still imperfect, the fact is that numerous competing political parties and opinions exist in Palestine. To dismiss these developments is unfair – and suggests that those who proclaim that democracy doesn’t exist reveals more about the political allegiances of various authors than Palestinian political reality.

Lastly, Jacoby claims that, with Bush at the helm, there has never been “a better opportunity to transform Palestinian society from a dangerous, hate-filled dictatorship into a civilized, self-governing democracy”. “Hate filled dictatorship”? “Civilized”? Jacoby, like so many other commentators in the mainstream press, suffer from both ignorance and racism. It is not surprising that the average American, spoon-fed racist views of Arabs, continue to believe that Israel is a liberal democracy much like the U.S. Rarely do such commentators include perspectives that fall outside of the “us” (rational, civilized, and democratic) versus the “them” (irrational, violent, uncivilized, and undemocratic) dichotomy when speaking about the Arab Middle East. Commentators who continually feed this representation to the public suggest that only outside powerful forces, such as the United States, can reform Arabs. Beyond the absurdity that the United States is actually concerned with democracy abroad (or at home for that matter), the fact of Israeli’s rejection of liberal democratic ideas or horrific human rights record is never mentioned.

I do agree with Jacoby on the point that human rights are important and should be respected. But shouldn’t commentators, such as Jacoby, demand that human rights be respected everywhere and not just in the Arab world? With so many human rights organizations criticizing Israeli’s record of atrocities, why have they not included such into their perspectives? Lies and misinformation of this sort are regularly published in major newspapers. Depressingly, the belief that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East – a “civilized” nation that respects universal human rights – has near consensus in the national media.

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