Elections and the demise of democracy

A fifth of Israel’s citizens are being delegitimized by the majority and their wannabe political representatives.

AN ELECTION billboard in Rahat.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
AN ELECTION billboard in Rahat.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Elections are a key element in any democracy – and in true democracies, they should be the highest level of celebration of the citizens’ right to determine their future. But while elections are one of the pillars of true democracy, they not the only one. Majority rule is a principle of democracy. But would a true democracy allow the majority to prevent, let’s say, a minority of 20% of the society from participating fully in the political life of that society?
That is what is happening in Israel today. A fifth of Israel’s citizens are being delegitimized by the majority and their wannabe political representatives. Never before have the Palestinian citizens of Israel been so outcast by the majority of political parties in Jewish Israel. The demand is made of Jewish politicians across the public domain, in the media and at public events, to declare that they will not rely on the votes of 20% of the citizens, and that they will not sit with them in a coalition. And if they don’t declare those things, their loyalty to the state is immediately questioned.
The prime minister and members of his party declare day and night that the Palestinian citizens of Israel seek to destroy the state. Where and when have the Arab political parties in Israel made such declarations or taken such actions? If they did, surely they would not be free men and women. They would be sitting behind bars and not participating in democratic elections.
The overwhelming majority of Palestinian citizens of Israel are law-abiding ones who contribute to the building of the state. They work in all parts of the country, pay their taxes, follow the laws, contribute to the economy, teach in the universities, fulfill our prescriptions in pharmacies and care for us all in our hospitals and clinics. And growing numbers of young Palestinian citizens are enlisting for non-military civil service.
Yes, the Arab political parties in Israel are fighting for equality. Yes, they would prefer Israel to be the state of all of its citizens and not the nation-state of the Jewish people. It is their democratic right to participate in political life in their state and to try to change the minds of all of the citizens of that state. They are not engaged in military action or terrorism against the state and its symbols, and they do not preach or practice violence.
ONE OF the leaders of the Arab parties, Ayman Odeh, is the head of a party that since 1947 has supported a two-state solution, recognizing the right of the Jewish people to self-determination.
Another leader, Dr. Ahmed Tibi, a medical doctor, has been one of the most diligent legislators since 1999. He served as an adviser to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat with the aim of assisting Israel and the Palestinians to achieve peace. Tibi is well known as being one of the most eloquent orators on the horrors of the worst crime against humanity – the Holocaust.
Even at the far-left extreme, the Balad Party is seeking for Israel to be the state of all of its citizens, not a Jewish state – but through legitimate politics, and it is completely opposed to violence. Its founder is suspected of aiding Hezbollah during the Second Lebanon War, but exiled himself to Qatar in 2006, and has refused to face arrest, questioning and trial.
Another member of the party was arrested and convicted of smuggling cellphones into prison for Palestinian prisoners. He is serving a two-year prison term. But the political party that Azmi Bishara founded is not guilty of any crimes. It is a legitimate political party in the State of Israel representing Israeli citizens. The prime minister is suspect of committing crimes, and a former prime minister went to prison. That does not criminalize their political parties.
The demand being made from Jewish political parties – to state a priori that they will not cooperate with the Arab parties in forming a government after the elections, or in supporting a candidate other than Netanyahu to form a government – is a slap in the face to 20% of Israel’s citizens and a clear sign of the demise of the core principles of democracy in Israel.
I HAVE always related to Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and all of its citizens. I became an Israeli citizen more than 40 years ago on the basis of Israel’s Law of Return, which grants all Jews the right to become Israeli citizens.
I have defended that right over the years on the basis of two claims:
1) The Law of Return does not discriminate between citizens of Israel, it discriminates between who can become citizens of the State of Israel. Israel was dedicated, in principle, to equality between all of its citizens.
2) The hope and belief that when there is a Palestinian state next to Israel it would have its own Law of Return, granting automatic citizenship to Palestinians around the world who would like to be citizens of their own nation state.
That would provide a balance between the immigration laws of the two states that give preference to members of their own national groups. My right to be a citizen of the State of Israel, as someone who was not born in the state, should not grant me a higher status than 20% of the citizens of Israel who were born in Israel and whose direct family lineage dates back many generations in this land, and often in the exact same communities where they live today. 
The principle of equality between all Israelis that is fundamental in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, for me, has always been a badge of honor and a declaration of intentions of what the State of Israel seeks to be. It is clear that as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict exists and the Palestinian citizens of Israel have a natural and understandable allegiance to their own people living under Israeli occupation, that full equality would be impossible to implement. The Palestinian citizens of Israel will always in a way be suspect in the eyes of the Jewish majority.
Nonetheless, almost every Israeli government since 1948 has stated a desire to achieve equality, and to close the gaps between Jews and Arabs in Israel. With the absence of the principle of equality in the Nation-State Law, and the continuous incitement by the prime minister and other right-wing politicians in Israel against the Palestinian citizens of Israel, the full delegitimization of their participation in the electoral process has reached new and frightening heights.
In 1981, prime minister Menachem Begin (Likud) and education minister Zevulun Hammer (National Religious Party) hired me as the first civil servant in Israel responsible for improving Jewish-Arab relations in a new position that I created. The right-wing leaders of that time practiced democracy. Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, stated that Israel will be judged by the nations of the world on how it relates to its Arab minority.
Today, the future of Israel will be based on its ability to create a shared society. To do that we have to delegitimize the anti-democratic trends that are all too prevalent in the elections of 2019.
The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, was published by Vanderbilt University Press.