Israel’s powerful military and booming economy are undeniable facts, but its much-celebrated democracy is utter fiction.
Israel claims to be a Jewish and democratic state. In fact, it is neither. It boasts of being “the state of the Jewish people” everywhere, when less than half of the world’s Jews live in the country. Today, Israel rules over 15 million people between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, half of whom are not Jews; most can’t vote in Israel.
Israel does not even recognise “Israeliness” as a nationality and rejects the liberal democratic concept of a “state of all its citizens”. Instead, the Jewish state recognises two strata of people: Jews who are entitled to full rights and Palestinians who must be content with fewer or no rights. These Palestinians are grudgingly tolerated as second-class citizens, occupied and repressed as colonial subjects, or are kept away as undesirable refugees, whose inalienable right to return would destroy the “Jewish state”.
And if that’s not enough to raise eyebrows, consider the fact that there is no consensus in the “Jewish state” as to “who is a Jew”. Orthodox, Reform and secular Jews have different – even conflicting – interpretations of Jewishness. It is a religious question that is dependent on power politics, as this old Israeli satirical sketch illustrates quite well.
Nevertheless, the legal and political rationale in apartheid colonial Israel privileges the Jews living on all territories between the River and the Sea in all important spheres of life, including citizenship, housing, land rights, language, culture, mobility, and so on.
In that way, Israel/Palestine is no different from apartheid South Africa, where privileged whites also enjoyed a degree of communitarian democracy. But Western hypocritical elites, who refer to “the one and only democracy in the Middle East”, never spoke of “the only democracy in Africa”. Tomato, tomahto.
To compensate for the lack of true democracy, Israel holds elections – spectacular elections. The more elections it holds, the crueller and more fragmented they become. As I wrote after the last election, “personal ambition trumps politics, and politicking outweighs ideology” in today’s Israel.
The fragmentation gives the country an allure of plurality and diversity, especially in contrast to the first three decades of the Israeli state, when Labour predictably won every election. But in recent years, the Right has become as dominant as Labour was, albeit with more screaming, slights and slurs.
Cruelty has become Israel’s national sport. Indeed, “Israel’s politics is crueller than most”, according to Benjamin Netanyahu. He should know; he’s the champ. Cruelty comes in two strands: political vitriol and racist violence. Both flare up like fireworks with each election season, which comes as often as spring or summer these days.
It is no surprise then, that as the November 1 election approached, the fifth in four years, the country’s political discourse turned poisonous. Where Israel’s racist leaders fall short on political disagreement, they make up for it in personal insults and character assassination. “Scum of the human race”, “pathological liar”, “assassin”, and “fascist” are some of the milder language animating Israel’s electoral spectacle.
Even accusations of Nazism and anti-Semitism have been hurled again and again by fanatics from the religious and secular camps. It is these types of accusations the Netanyahu camp whipped up in the mid-1990s that led to the assassination of then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for daring to advance the peace process without a clear Jewish majority in the Knesset.
Crude racism against the Palestinians is as certain to accompany the election season as winter cold and summer heat. But there is an exception to the rule – if or when Palestinians betray their conscience in return for table crumbs; these “good Arabs” are appreciated like the house slave, Stephen Warren, in Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained.
Cruel violence is likewise predictable during election season as we have witnessed in the past. In a ritualistic projection of machoism and bravado, Israel has bombarded the besieged Gaza, invaded and re-invaded Palestinian towns and refugee camps in the occupied West Bank, killed and imprisoned thousands of Palestinian civilians, destroyed countless homes, and terrorised an entire people under the pretext of combatting terrorism.
And so, a year after Netanyahu’s minions took over from him, their coalition government has proved just as bad, if not worse. Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman, who in the past served as Netanyahu’s chiefs of staff, Gideon Sa’ar, who was his cabinet secretary, and Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz, who were ministers in his cabinet, have repeated Netanyahu’s crimes and follies in the occupied Palestinian territories.
The apples do not fall far from the tree. Their government bombarded Gaza, reinvaded West Bank cities, expanded illegal settlements and blocked all paths to a negotiated settlement.
The “moderate” Gantz, who bragged about flattening whole residential neighbourhoods in Gaza when he was the military chief of staff, was at it again in 2021, overseeing more devastation, this time as Israeli minister of defence. Most recently, he nominated an illegal settler as the new military chief of staff.
If this is moderation, why not vote straight for extremism; it is at least authentic!
No surprise then, that “the prince of darkness and hate”, Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to win a sixth term as prime minister, despite his indictment for breach of trust, accepting bribes, and fraud. If he does, Netanyahu is sure to form a “national immunity government” that ensures he stays out of prison. His alliance with far-right parties, like Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Strength), might also try to weaken the supreme court and the judiciary by subjugating them to its parliamentary majority.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak has recently condemned the “unholy alliance between Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir and the messianic racists” as the “true threat to the State of Israel”, and predicted that its victory may usher “a period of darkness”. Cruel, perhaps, but merited.
To be sure, Netanyahu has repeatedly slated Barak and worse. In his recently published autobiographical monstrosity, Bibi, the spinner-in-chief trashes many if not most of his predecessors, successors, and former partners and interlocutors. The book’s 736 pages are full of lies, half-truths, and hyperboles, as well as conceit, self-importance and delusion, but I will leave that matter for another day.
Such is the dreadful state of “Israeli democracy” today. Far right fanatics and bloody generals dominate the absolute majority of seats in the Israeli parliament and compete for the seats of the terribly shrinking Left. The more elections Israel holds the less democratic and more despotic it becomes towards the Palestinians, alas.