Israeli Public's Commitment to Democracy Shines as the Country Turns 75

April 27, 2023 Topic: Israel Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Lebanon Watch Tags: IsraelPalestineHamasHezbollahIranDemocracyPolitics

Israeli Public's Commitment to Democracy Shines as the Country Turns 75

Just as the attempted judicial overhaul aroused the Israeli public to stand up to defend the democratic character of the state, we may also see the public act against another threat to the character of the state—namely, becoming a binational state.

Israel turns seventy-five this week. Most Israelis certainly didn’t anticipate this kind of commemoration as the country is engulfed in its biggest domestic crisis since its inception.

Yet this crisis is turning into the very gift that Israelis are giving to themselves and others for their birthday. It turns out that for all the talk that democracy cannot take root in countries where there is no democratic tradition, Israel’s demographic makeup tells a very different story. Notwithstanding that the majority of its population today has immigrated from across the Middle East, people are strongly committed to their freedoms.

With now sixteen straight weeks of demonstrations often totaling up to 4 percent of the entire population, one sees the depth of the Israeli public’s commitment to democracy. Nowhere else in the Middle East would even one week of such demonstrations be met with anything but massive bloodshed—and this extraordinary grassroots movement is a reminder that Israelis won’t tolerate the threat to end the separation of powers and an independent judiciary. Israelis won’t accept a majoritarian approach to the country that fails to respect the rights of minorities and preserves the rule of law.

The Israeli public has been aroused by what they see as a threat to Israel’s democratic character. Many of those demonstrating now have never demonstrated before. Reservists from elite air, naval, and commando units; the high-tech sector; the universities going on strike, hospitals offering only emergency services—all this forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to call for a pause and to signal he understands that any such judicial change must reflect a broad consensus in Israel. The story is not over by any means, but the Israeli public has acted in an unprecedented way because it perceived a threat to the democratic fabric of the country. At this point, the tide seems to have turned in favor of the grassroots democracy movement.

There are many lessons from this crisis that will be discussed for some time, but one of them surely is how a society that is fundamentally resilient can self-correct, especially when seeking to preserve its democratic identity. In Israel’s case, being a Jewish-democratic state is part of its ethos and that means both sides of the hyphen must flourish or they will each whither. In this framework, a Jewish-democratic state has meant equal voting rights whether one is Jewish or not for the last seventy-five years.

It is true that the Palestinian issue has not been the focus of the grassroots democracy movement in Israel. But there is no way to preserve Israel as a Jewish democracy without addressing the Palestinian issue. Those Israelis who favor yielding land in the West Bank do so not just to maintain dignity for Palestinians, but to ensure that Israel can remain both Jewish and democratic. This is critical to understand. For those Israeli leaders who take two states for two peoples off the table, they leave only one state as the answer—or their silence and the absence of a story to tell about the endgame of the conflict with the Palestinians leaves a vacuum. On the inside in Israel, there are extremist ministers like Itamar Ben-Gvir and Betzalel Smotrich who are only too happy to fill it.

But we also see there are those on the outside who, from a very different perspective, will seek to fill the intellectual and policy vacuum left by seemingly departing from two states for two peoples as a goal.

A case in point is the recent Foreign Affairs article written by Michael Barnett, Nathan Brown, Marc Lynch, and Shibley Telhami, entitled “Israel’s One State Reality.” Regrettably, they offer a one-sided view of the conflict and present a picture that seems divorced from reality. In the Barnett et al telling, there is only a denial of Palestinian rights. One would not know that there are rejectionist threats against Israel. That Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas deny Israel’s right to exist, support terror against it—and would even if there was no occupation—and acquire and develop weapons to act on their aims. Barnett et al note Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and say that Israel retained control over the territory’s entry and exit points and the air and sea around it. Why? No mention is made of the fact that even after Israel withdrew, Hamas continued to carry out attacks against it and still does eighteen years later.

Hamas has never put the development of Gaza over its aims of resistance against Israel. It went from having roughly 3,000 rockets after the 2014 conflict to having over 30,000 in the 2021 conflict. Hamas used that time not just to acquire rockets but to build an underground city of tunnels, exploiting materials (concrete, electrical wiring, steel, and wood) that could and should have been used to develop and build Gaza above ground. The tunnels weren’t to protect the people of Gaza by creating shelters. Rather, their purpose was to protect Hamas leaders, fighters, and weapons and to be used to try to infiltrate Israel. If Barnett et al are concerned about Israel’s control of entry and exits from Gaza, why not call for Hamas to give up its rockets and stop building tunnels in return for a Marshall Plan for Gaza and an end to such Israeli control? Why not call on Hamas to accept a two-state solution?

But sadly the authors are more concerned with indicting Israel than promoting Palestinian needs and rights. In a world in which the authors are indifferent to the threats that Israel faces, it is not a leap to argue, as they do, to condition military aid to Israel in order to terminate Israeli military rule over Palestinians. How do the authors think the Iranians, Hezbollah, and Hamas would react to an American cut-off of military assistance to Israel? Would that make conflict less likely? Would that reassure others in the region about the threats they are likely to face? Wouldn’t the forces that produce failed and failing states in the region—Iran’s greatest export—perceive great opportunity in such a circumstance? We have seen a foretaste this spring. Amid all the announcements that Israeli pilots and elite forces were threatening to refrain from reserve duty due to the democracy demonstrations, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khameini and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah openly talked about Israel’s early collapse. Hamas leader Ismail Haniya rushed to Beirut amid talk about the possibilities of a united front.

None of this is a concern to the authors. They are far more concerned with Israel being a Jewish state which “fosters a form of ethnic nationalism rather than a civic one…” For the authors, this is a sin, and while they acknowledge that it is not a perfect fit, they still apply the apartheid label to Israel. But apartheid was an ideology of subjugation of a large majority by a small minority; it promulgated a legal structure to ensure the power and control of the white minority over the black majority of people, permitting them to live only in certain areas, to have only certain kinds of jobs, go to certain schools, with limited access to any legal remedies. Is there inequality in Israel (as there is in the United States and in other democracies)? Yes. Is it written into the law, no. Is there a minority oppressing a majority with a legal edifice justifying it? No.

But the apartheid label fits the authors’ purpose of indicting Israel and justifying its call for creating equality in one state. There is equality before the law in Israel of its citizens, including its Arab citizens who vote and hold parliamentary and judicial office, even if this is not necessarily realized in the daily reality of those citizens. Obviously, the Palestinians in the West Bank are treated differently.

And, to be fair, there is a drift toward a binational state that needs to be arrested and reversed. We wrote a book about the need for Israel to have a political leadership that will make the hard decisions—and override the inevitable backlash of those like Ben-Gvir, Smotrich, and extremist settlers—to ensure that Israel does not become a binational state where either it gives up being a democracy or it gives up being a Jewish state.

By definition, in a binational state, Israel cannot be both Jewish and democratic. For the extreme in Israel, they see no contradiction between being Jewish and denying rights to Palestinians. We do. Unlike the authors, who see the extremist vision having “strong grounding in Zionist thought and practice,” we see that vision as a fundamental contradiction of Zionism and its basic values. The most important Zionist theorists and leaders shared a deep belief in democracy and the rights of all people, including that the rights to Arabs must not be denied.

In no small part, the backlash today in Israel and the strong movement domestically to save Israel’s democratic character is a response to an extremist vision of Israel. They see the Supreme Court as the institutional safeguard against those trying to impose their values on the country—whether it is to block the religious parties trying to impose their values on the secular majority in Israel or it is the settler-dominated parties who don’t want the Court to block their ability to claim private Palestinian land.