Why major powers’ description of Israel as a democracy is wrong
An obstinate lexicon of cliches garnishes every Western political figure’s discourse on Israel-Palestine. Most of them bear little relationship to the reality on the ground and, at their worst, are dangerously misleading. The stickiness of catchphrases such as “the Middle East peace process” and “two-state solution” is remarkable.
Dipping his hand into the cliche cookie jar last week was the British foreign secretary. “Israel’s security is our security,” posted James Cleverly, a position most British voters might not be aware of. “A strong Israel is vital to the security of the region,” and “The UK remains a firm supporter of a two-state solution” were two other tired gems.
None of this is novel. The peace process is nonexistent. A two-state solution is as close to unrealizable as imaginable, with the Israeli government gobbling up the last crumbs of hope on that front.
Yet here was Cleverly posting a picture of himself alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the tag line: “United by our unwavering belief in democracy.” Other figures have referred to Israel as a “freedom-loving democracy.” The US national security adviser, when discussing the upcoming Joe Biden-Netanyahu meet on the sidelines at the UN, said they would “discuss the two nations’ shared democratic values.”
This is spectacular trolling of the Israeli protesters who have spent 37 weeks demonstrating against the Netanyahu coalition’s full-frontal assault on the Israeli judicial system. It is quite something given how Netanyahu himself is on trial on corruption charges.
If only Israel was a democracy with equal rights for all of its citizens. The reality is that it never has been, even before these protests. However, making such a claim triggers howls of outrage among the anti-Arab corps, clouding any attempt to examine this dispassionately.
If only Israel was a democracy with equal rights for all of its citizens. The reality is that it never has been
Yes, Israel has general elections. Palestinian citizens of Israel can vote. It is not plagued by ballot-rigging. Some Palestinian citizens have made high office, including a few ministers. All true. But elections do not make a democracy.
A democracy has to be a state for all its citizens. In the self-styled “Jewish state,” this is not the case. A democracy for Jews only is not a democracy. This has particularly been the case since the 2018 passing of the “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People.” Under this law, non-Jews are second-class citizens at best. A democracy should give rights to all those entitled to be within that state. Palestinian refugees from 1948 are denied their rights to citizenship. Many of them were ethnically cleansed between 1947 and 1950. Deliberate acts of violence were deployed to alter the demographics of the state. More than 400 Palestinian villages were destroyed. Even today, many Palestinians inside Israel live in unrecognized communities and cannot vote in municipal elections.
Any Jew anywhere in the world can immigrate to Israel. A Palestinian refugee within a few miles of Israel’s borders cannot. Moreover, Israeli authorities do not draft Palestinian citizens into the army, while ensuring that many benefits only apply to those who have served.
Israel also illegally annexed a unilaterally expanded East Jerusalem. Though this should not have happened, just like Russia should not have annexed Crimea, Israel refused to give Palestinians in East Jerusalem the right to citizenship, just permanent residency. Those who tried to apply for citizenship faced a long, drawn-out process and mostly failed. Citizenship was never a right. More than 14,000 Palestinians have had their permanent residency in Jerusalem removed, reflecting how precarious their status is.
The most compelling description of the Israeli political model is a regime of apartheid, with systematic discrimination against the non-Jewish population. In every area under Israeli control, Jews have superior rights. Israel controls the lives of 14 million people but only the Jewish population have full rights. In the worst case, in Gaza, Palestinians endure occupation and blockade; in the West Bank, it is occupation including martial law.
Israel’s crime of apartheid is now being recognized across the entire human rights community and further afield
The clearest, most obvious marker of apartheid is the privileged position of 700,000 settlers. Israeli Jewish settlers have full rights and citizenship, living under Israeli civil law in the same geography where Palestinians are under the control of the army — a control marked by increasing brutality and violence. Israel denies more than 5.5 million Palestinians any rights or basic freedoms. Settlers have privileged access to water, about six times as much per head.
Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir last month highlighted the settlers’ superior rights. In an Israeli TV interview, he proclaimed: “My right and that of my wife and children to travel the roads of Judea and Samaria is more important than freedom of movement for Arabs … The right to life comes before freedom of movement.”
International condemnation followed. However, the condemnation was directed at Ben-Gvir for what he said, not the horrific reality on the ground he correctly described. That is what the world should be appalled by.
Israel’s crime of apartheid is now being recognized across the entire human rights community and further afield. Many are no longer scared of stating what they have known for a long time. It is barely contested, even if political figures still refuse to face reality.
If the fact that nearly every major human rights organization in the world, including 17 Israeli ones, have determined that this is apartheid is not enough to convince you, what about Tamir Pardo? This man was the former head of Mossad, surely not an antisemite, who has made clear that, in his view, Israel operates apartheid. Not enough? How about former top Israeli general Amiram Levin, who stated this month that Israel has implemented “total apartheid” in the West Bank. Benjamin Pogrund, one of the most prominent Jewish opponents of the South African apartheid regime, has for years defended Israel against the charge of the crime of apartheid. However, only last month, he wrote that he could no longer make this argument and that the “charge is becoming fact.”
None of this prevented Germany’s antisemitism czar, Felix Klein, from claiming that calling Israel an apartheid state was an “antisemitic narrative.” Such a statement, so diametrically at odds with the observed reality on the ground, should lead to him losing his role, but no. In fact, denying the apartheid system is a clear example of deep-rooted anti-Arab racism.
Apartheid and democracy are polar opposites. Apartheid is something Jewish figures globally are increasingly opposing, appalled as they are at the behavior of Israel. They understand all too well this is a disgraceful violation of Jewish beliefs and morals.
Describing Israel as a democracy is not some harmless, uncontroversial comment. It is an endorsement of a vile, racist system that needs to be upended. Major powers need to dismantle the discriminatory system Israel has imposed. There can be no peace process and no fair solution until that happens. One day, one hopes the world’s leaders will be honest about this and understand their role in propping up this apartheid system. Until then, Palestinians have little hope.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first-class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. X: @Doylech