On Tuesday this week, Haaretz together with the New Israel Fund and the new Israeli human rights organization Zulat convened a large conference in Jaffa examining the state of Israel’s democracy. The speakers at the conference included President Isaac Herzog, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Minister of Transportation Merav Michaeli, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, Minister of Health Nitzan Horowitz, Minister of Regional Cooperation Esawi Frej, Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg, and Knesset members Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi from the Joint List.
Also addressing the gathering were former chief justice Dorit Beinish, MK Rabbi Moshe Gafni, and many other leading journalists, former senior civil servants including Shaul Meridor, the first corona chief, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, former assistant attorney-general Dina Zilber, and others. It was a full day packed with intelligent and thoughtful discussions.
Much of the day focused on assessing Israel’s democracy since the establishment of the “Government of Change,” especially following what most speakers presented as the clear and present dangers that existed under the leadership of the indicted former prime minister Netanyahu.
The speakers mainly presented expected arguments that while there are still threats against Israel’s democracy and its democratic institutions, the state of Israel’s democracy today is sounder than it was during the past years. After four rounds of elections and the absence of a national budget – during which time Netanyahu led incitement against the judicial institutions and weakened the independence of the media – the state of our democracy is better today.
MKs Tibi and Odeh stated that while it is good that Netanyahu is no longer prime minister, they both indicated that in their view (which I share), some of Netanyahu’s worst policies have continued and perhaps even worsened under the new government.
These include the expansion of construction of housing and infrastructure in settlements in the occupied territories, the sharp increase in settler violence against Palestinians under the watchful eyes and support of the Israeli army, and the continuation of the occupation with no political plan for renewing peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
One of Israel’s leading attorneys, Michael Sfard, was more succinct and to the point. He said that while many Israelis speak of the new government bringing Israel back to a sense of normalcy, there is nothing normal about Israel. “Israel is not a democracy,” he said. “It cannot be a democracy and continue to keep millions of people under its control devoid of political rights.”
The Palestinian people did not elect the government of change or the opposition. Yet the government of Israel determines almost everything important in their lives without them having the most basic right to influence their decisions through democratic institutions. Israel cannot be a democracy and an occupying power at the same time.
Fifty-four years have passed since the war in 1967, which ended with Israel in control over the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza. This is not a temporary affair. The government of change has no intention of changing the continued Israeli control over those territories. The government does not plan to develop any sort of initiative aimed at reaching agreements with the Palestinian people on the future of the territories. The coalition agreement with Labor and Meretz included agreements not to undertake policies such as settlement expansion, which could prevent and preclude the possibilities of reaching political agreements in the future.
But that so-called freeze is not taking place. The Israeli government of change is incapable of taking on any kind of bold new peace initiative.
There are too many divergent views on the issue of the territories between the eight political parties that make up the government. I have no expectations from this government on the peace front. I do expect the government and demand from it not to worsen the situation.
Settler violence supported by the Israeli army must end, and the violent settlers must be brought to justice. Settlement expansion plans should not be approved by the government. The Israeli government should not outlaw well-known and respected Palestinian human rights organizations and label them as terrorist fronts without presenting indisputable facts proving their case.
We Israeli citizens really need to wake up and face the reality that Israel cannot call itself a democracy and at the same time prevent millions of people from having full democratic rights.
Israel cannot label itself a true democracy when 20% of its own citizens – the Palestinian citizens of Israel – are “legally” designated as ineligible for collective national identity rights in their own country. While the government of change is beginning to throw much more serious amounts of money aimed at closing the huge gaps between Jewish and Palestinian Israelis, the issue of the status of the Palestinian citizens of Israel is not just about economic status gaps over the past seven decades.
A democratic country that denies the rights of 20% of its citizens from being able to be full and equal citizens cannot be a genuine democracy. These are issues that we as Israelis must come to terms with. Israel cannot be a democracy for its Jewish citizens and a Jewish state for its Palestinian Arab citizens. Israel cannot be a Jewish country when just over half of the people living in the territory that it controls are not Jewish.
Jewish and democratic simply does not hold up to reality, unless of course we continue to fool ourselves and continue the lie because it enables us to be members of clubs of other democratic nations. But sooner or later the lie will catch up with us.
We should remember the famous words attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”
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. He is now directing The Holy Land Investment Bond.