Israel has never had a democracy, so how can it lose it? – Middle East Monitor
What should we make of the daily warnings issued about democracy being at risk in Israel? Over the weekend it was US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides who sounded the alarm. “What unites America and Israel is the love of democracy and democratic institutions,” Nides said as he called on the far-right government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to slow down its legislation intended to reform the judicial system. “This is what makes us defend Israel again and again.” He was speaking a day before the Knesset – Israel’s parliament – passed the draft legislation on its first reading early Monday morning, with 63 MKs in favor, a simple majority in the 120-seat chamber.
Nides joins a long list of people and thousands of protesters warning of the death of democracy in Israel. Among them are former Israeli attorneys and former state prosecutors who published a letter warning that Netanyahu’s proposal hinders efforts to “preserve Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” Perhaps the most alarming statements were those made by Professor Daniel Blatman at the Institute for Contemporary Judaism at Hebrew University, who said that fascism “already exists” in Israel. Liberal Jewish organizations on both sides of the Atlantic have also expressed concern about the government’s plan for judicial “reforms”.
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The vote on the controversial legislation has been described as “a battle for Israel’s foundation.” Bills submitted will amend Israel’s “fundamental laws”, which are legally equivalent to a constitution. The changes will give lawmakers control over judicial appointments, end judicial review of legislation and allow parliament to vote on Supreme Court decisions. In practice, this means that the most right-wing regime in Israel’s history will dominate the judiciary. In the Israeli political system, where the government always has a majority, such a reform eliminates the independence of the three main branches of a democratic system: the legislature, the executive and the judiciary.
Yesterday’s vote prompted further warnings about the threat to democracy. “Members of the coalition – history will judge you for this night,” opposition leader Yair Lapid said on Twitter. “For the damage to democracy, the damage to the economy, the damage to security, the fact that you are tearing the people of Israel apart and you don’t care.”
It is tempting to view this type of judicial reform in Israel as another example of democracy in retreat around the globe. In addition, people like Lapid, Nides and many others who are critical of the Israeli government do not want the rest of the world to believe that the attack on democracy by the Netanyahu government is nothing more than a confrontation. To prove their claim, they can even cite last year’s report from The Global State of Democracy which found that half of the world’s democratic governments are deteriorating and authoritarian regimes are increasing their oppression . While there may be some truth to this claim, it completely ignores the historical tension between democracy and Zionism at the heart of Israeli politics.
For millions of Palestinians and many others familiar with the nature of Israel’s ongoing ethnic cleansing and takeover of Palestinian land, the warning and outrage at democracy being under siege from a far-right faction in the Knesset is mystifying. In their eyes, Israel is far from being a democracy. A central tenet of democracy is the idea that the state belongs to all its citizens. Israel, however, is the self-declared “nation state of the Jewish people”. This has major implications. It means that a Jew living anywhere in the world who has no connection to Israel has a greater claim to the land than non-Jewish citizens of the occupying state, who make up 20 percent of the population. By downgrading citizenship in favor of only one particular ethnic group, Israel undermines the basic principle of democracy and encodes discrimination in its constitution.
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Although 20 percent of Israel’s citizens face various forms of institutional discrimination, the apartheid state’s treatment of non-Jews in the West Bank and Gaza is as far from democratic as the white supremacist apartheid regime in South Africa. The Pretoria government established ten “Bantustans” to serve homogeneous ethnic groups. The aim was to establish self-governing nation-states for the black communities of South Africa, but no one knew that this was part of the apartheid system. By the way, Israel maintained very close relations with the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Today, Israel has created “self-governing” authorities within the occupied Palestinian territories. Almost all Israeli politicians, including those who complain about the death of democracy in the occupied state, are in full support of such an arrangement that has locked the Palestinians for years in various areas of subjugation and control. There is nothing to suggest that the seven million Palestinians controlled by Israel will ever be given the same rights as the seven million Jews who also live in historic Palestine.
Palestinians do not believe that Israel is a democracy. Nor do they believe that Israel’s Supreme Court is in danger of losing its independence if Netanyahu’s amendments get through a second and likely third reading. The simple reason for this is that the court has never shown any independence. Israeli judges have rubber-stamped almost every policy and piece of legislation designed to preserve and maintain the system of apartheid and Jewish supremacy in occupied Palestine. That’s why the Palestinians know better than anyone that the idea of ”Jewish democracy” is an oxymoron.
They have also discovered that every Israeli government will choose the Zionist ideal of Jewish supremacy over democracy; racial discrimination and racial equality. The “Jewish state” has no democracy to lose.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.