Has Israel ceased being a democracy?

The Atlantic’s Jeffery Goldberg is worried that Israel might cease being a democracy. When will that be? The threshold he suggests has already been crossed, and is meaningless anyway. His analysis of anti-democratic forces in Israel is equally superficial and prejudiced

Jeffery Goldberg, in The Atlantic, is concerned about the possibility that Israel might cease being a democracy. The idea that absorbing the Palestinians in the West Bank will force Israel to choose between being Jewish and being democratic is a cliché in Israel. It was voiced even by Ehud Barak (Labor), Netanyahu’s defense minister. Still, it is surprising to hear it from Goldberg, who, like many prominent Jewish American commentators, is often to the right of Israeli public opinion.

Considering that the occupation has been going on for nearly half a century, with no end in sight, can Israel still be considered a democracy? Goldberg believes “it is premature to talk about the end of Israel as a democratic state — mainly because the disposition of the West Bank is still undecided”. So when will it be considered decided?

… let’s say that Lieberman’s government annexes swaths of the West Bank in order to take in Jewish settlements, but announces summarily that the Arabs in the annexed territory are in fact citizens of Jordan, and can vote there if they want to, but they won’t be voting in Israel.

Goldberg considers this scenario nothing short of “apocalyptic”. But that is precisely what Israel has done in Jerusalem! The eastern part of the city was officially annexed in 1968, but the Palestinians living there have not been granted the right to vote in Israel’s general elections. There are actually more Palestinians living there than in Area C of the West Bank, which encompasses 60% of the West Bank’s territory and all the settlements. So if Israel annexes all of Area C, that will not even double the number of Palestinians without voting rights in its territory.

And what if Israel gives them all voting rights, both to the East Jerusalemites and to the Palestinian residents of Area C? It will increase the number of its Palestinian citizens very mildly, by less than a quarter. They will rise to about 25% of its population, instead of a fifth, as they are now. Still, quite remote from endangering the Jewish predominance.

Will this be a “democratic” solution? One thing is sure: it will be highly unjust for the Palestinians, and unsustainable for everyone. The Palestinian cities will become enclaves within Israel’s territory. They will not be formally annexed, but they will become a de facto part of Israel, without a right to vote for the government that controls every aspect of their lives. In essence, it will be no different than the present situation.

If anything, it will better for some Palestinians. Presumably, even if they do not get the vote, those who live in territories that are annexed will become “permanent residents” – the status accorded to East Jerusalem Palestinians. They will be able to work inside Israel, receive healthcare and social security benefits, marry Arab Israelis, move (more or less) freely through checkpoints. All these privileges are denied to them now.

If this is the apocalypse, what does that say about our present situation? Goldberg’s threshold has been crossed, and is meaningless anyway. The question is not whether Israel will cease being a democracy; the question is whether it will ever become one in the first place.

Goldberg’s analysis of the causes for concern is also deeply misguided:

… democracy is something less than a religious value for wide swaths of Israeli Jewish society. I’m speaking here of four groups, each ascendant to varying degrees: The haredim, the ultra-Orthodox Jews … the working-class religious Sephardim — Jews from Arab countries … the settler movement … and the million or so recent immigrants from Russia…

These groups account for about two thirds of Israel’s Jewish population. Basically, the only group that was excluded from the anti-democracy camp was secular non-Russian Ashkenazi Jews living inside the Green line. Do they worship at democracy’s altar? Well, they are certainly more hypocritical about this issue. But as I argued in another post, they are even more culpable for Israel’s plight.

These people, for example, usually vote for Labor and Kadima – the parties which have presided over much more intense settlement construction than almost any Likud government. Their “peacemaking” efforts often seem directed at creating excuses to avoid concessions, rather than to solve the underlying problem. And both parties launched bloody campaigns against Palestinians in the territories, and continued blatant discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel. Kadima MKs are even the proud sponsors of several anti-democratic bills before the Knesset.

If concerned commentators like Jeffery Goldberg are unaware of these basic facts, or choose to ignore them, it bodes ill for their efforts to promote true positive change in Israel.