Israeli Democracy in Peril
Why Daniel Levy thinks Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians is poisoning the Jewish state from within.
Which brings us to the second avenue of assault on Israeli democracy—again, not of new vintage but recently turbo-charged. That is all about reconciling the democratic part of the Jewish democratic state equation. With their tradition of liberal politics and struggles for equality, most American Jews may think the seamless merging of Jewish and democratic sounds like a no-brainer. Seen in the Israeli context, however, it is a far less obvious communion. Twenty percent of Israelis are non-Jewish Palestinian Arab, an indigenous community decimated by the dispossession and displacement that accompanied the coming into being of the Jewish state. They’re often treated by officialdom as potential fifth columnists, and they face ongoing institutionalized discrimination. For many years it seemed that the formal structures of Israeli democracy (universal suffrage, an open media, a robust court system) combined with sufficiently pragmatic leadership would block an ethnocratic or theocratic manifestation of Jewish statehood from swallowing people’s key universal rights.
But something else has also been going on: Israel’s maintenance of an illegal occupation and thoroughly undemocratic system beyond the Green Line (only partially mitigated by the creation of a Palestinian Authority lacking in sovereign powers). Under any circumstances, it would be difficult for a democratic entity to run a democratic system in one space and an undemocratic one in another over a prolonged period of time. This has been the Israeli reality for 44 years and counting. The shortcuts taken by a nondemocracy in depriving people of rights (how Israel manages the Palestinians in the territories) have started to seep back over the Green Line into “Israel proper.” The inevitable moral corrosion that accompanies the maintenance of an illegal foreign occupation has blunted Israeli moral sensibilities at home. These are long-term trends.
What is new is the increasingly vocal and open advocacy for implementing a version of the occupation’s nondemocracy in Israel itself. A coalition of the national religious (settlers, for shorthand) and nativist nationalists (themselves not infrequently immigrants from the former Soviet Union) are pursuing a Jewish ethnocratic state at the expense of a Jewish democratic state. The space of democracy and dissent in Israel is being squeezed by attempts to curtail the freedom of NGOs, to reconfigure the selection process for Supreme Court justices, and to enhance control over the media by the government and government-loyalists. (Remember, too, that Israel has always been a very imperfect democracy for its Palestinian Arab citizens.) The purveyors of this vision for Israel stake a strong claim to being the authentic Zionists. Today, they are the ones in the ascendancy. While Israeli liberals tend to obsess far more about the “Haredi threat,” it is the settler-nationalists that have a vision for all of Israel, not just for one sub-community—and it’s a deeply undemocratic one.
It is hard to see how democracy will emerge victorious in Israel if the country still has to justify and manage an undemocratic occupation. The struggle for democracy in Israel needs to include the struggle to end occupation—and to create a genuine democracy for all Israeli citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. We must acknowledge a rather self-evident truth: that Israeli society, in the face of this twin assault, is finding it rather difficult to summon the courage and wisdom to end the occupation. Israel might need some help from the Palestinians. In order to take the steps necessary to salvage its own democracy and even its own future, it might need the Palestinians to make the status quo less bearable.
Palestine’s admission to the U.N. would not have changed everything over night, but it would have been a step on the path to a disincentive structure that might challenge the status quo. The Palestinians have alternatives. One of them is to wait: wait for two states to become impossible and for Israeli democracy to further erode. Much as official Israel and its most chest-thumping supporters in the U.S. took umbrage at the U.N. membership bid, it might be Palestinian patience, rather than the impatience demonstrated by the U.N. application, that will have more devastating consequences for Israel’s longevity.