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You Can’t Save Democracy in a Jewish State

Israeli democracy is in danger, demonstrations include very few Palestinians. It’s not a movement for equal rights. It’s a movement to preserve the political system that existed before the coalition took power - to save liberal democracy for Jews.

Protesters in Tel Aviv hold placards that say “Israeli students fighting for democracy” and “Without democracy there is no academy.”,Credit: Jack Guez/Agence France-Presse (AFP) / New York Times

Since Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government announced plans to undermine the independence of Israel’s Supreme Court, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have demonstrated in the streets. All of Israel’s living former attorneys general, in a joint statement, have warned that Mr. Netanyahu’s proposal imperils efforts to “preserve Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” Liberal American Jewish leaders are cheering on the protests. Earlier this month, Alan Solow, the former head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he and other American Jewish notables “share the concerns of tens of thousands of Israelis determined to protect their democracy.” In a public declaration, Mr. Solow and 168 other influential American Jews warned that “the new government’s direction mirrors anti-democratic trends that we see arising elsewhere.”

On the surface, the battle between Mr. Netanyahu and his critics does indeed look familiar. In recent years, from Brazil to Hungary to India to the United States, anti-government protesters have accused authoritarian-minded populists of threatening liberal democracy. But look closer at Israel’s political drama and you notice something striking: The people most threatened by Mr. Netanyahu’s authoritarianism aren’t part of the movement against it.

The demonstrations include very few Palestinians. In fact, Palestinian politicians have criticized them for having, in the words of former Knesset member Sami Abu Shehadeh, “nothing to do with the main problem in the region — justice and equality for all the people living here.”

The reason is that the movement against Mr. Netanyahu is not like the pro-democracy opposition movements in Turkey, India or Brazil — or the movement against Trumpism in the United States. It’s not a movement for equal rights. It’s a movement to preserve the political system that existed before Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition took power, which was not, for Palestinians, a genuine liberal democracy in the first place. It’s a movement to save liberal democracy for Jews.

The principle that Mr. Netanyahu’s liberal Zionist critics say he threatens — a Jewish and democratic state — is in reality a contradiction. Democracy means government by the people. Jewish statehood means government by Jews. In a country where Jews comprise only half of the people between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, the second imperative devours the first.

To understand just how illiberal the liberal Zionism championed by Mr. Netanyahu’s leading opponents is, consider the actions of Yair Lapid, his predecessor as prime minister. Last month, Mr. Lapid penned a nearly 2,000-word essay in which he wrote, “If this Netanyahu government does not fall, Israel will cease to be a liberal democracy.” It didn’t include the word “Palestinian.”

That becomes less surprising when you realize that as foreign minister, in 2021, Mr. Lapid implored the Knesset to renew a law that denies Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip who are married to Palestinian citizens the right to live with their spouses inside Israel proper. The law is blatantly discriminatory; Jews can immigrate to Israel and gain immediate citizenship whether they have relatives in the country or not. And far from denying the legislation’s discriminatory nature, Mr. Lapid celebrated it. The law, he explained in a tweet in July 2021, “is one of the tools meant to ensure the Jewish majority in the State of Israel.”

When Tucker Carlson and Viktor Orban employ this kind of logic — when they promote policies designed to ensure that the percentage of white Christians in their countries doesn’t dip too low — American Jewish liberals recognize it as anathema to the principle of equal citizenship on which liberal democracy rests. Yet many now see Mr. Lapid as liberal democracy’s champion because he opposes Mr. Netanyahu’s judicial changes.

Another major figure in the anti-Netanyahu movement is former defense minister Benny Gantz, who last month urged Israelis “to protest for safeguarding Israeli democracy.” But as defense minister in 2021, Mr. Gantz designated six leading Palestinian human rights groups as terrorist organizations in what the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem called “an act characteristic of totalitarian regimes.” Israeli troops later forced their way into the organizations’ offices, seized documents and then welded shut the doors. Do those sound like the actions of someone interested in “safeguarding” democracy?

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The problem runs deeper than just these politicians. When American Jewish leaders like Mr. Solow express solidarity with those “Israelis determined to protect their democracy,” they are not only deluding themselves about Mr. Netanyahu’s leading opponents. They are deluding themselves about Jewish statehood itself.

A protester holding a Palestinian flag in Tel Aviv at a demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government.   (Credit  :Tsafrir Abayov/Associated Press  //  New York Times)

For most of the Palestinians under Israeli control — those in the West Bank and Gaza Strip—Israel is not a democracy. It’s not a democracy because Palestinians in the Occupied Territories can’t vote for the government that dominates their lives. When Mr. Gantz sends Israeli troops to shut down their human rights groups, West Bank Palestinians can’t punish him at the ballot box. They can complain to the Palestinian Authority. But the P.A. is a subcontractor, not a state. Like other Palestinians, its officials need Israeli permission even to leave the West Bank. In Gaza, too, Israel determines, with help from Egypt, which people and products enter and exit. And Gaza’s residents, who live in what Human Rights Watch calls “an open-air prison,” can’t vote out the Israeli officials who hold the key.

This lack of democratic rights helps explain why Palestinians are less motivated than Israeli Jews to defend Israel’s Supreme Court. As the Israeli law professors David Kretzmer and Yael Ronen note in their book, “The Occupation of Justice,” “in almost all of its judgments relating to the Occupied Territories, especially those dealing with questions of principle, the Court has decided in favor of the authorities.” Enfeebling the court would undermine legal protections that Israeli Jews take for granted but most Palestinians did not enjoy in the first place.

To be fair, roughly 20 percent of the Palestinians under Israeli control enjoy Israeli citizenship and the right to vote in Israeli elections. Yet it is often these Palestinians who protest most vociferously against Israel’s democratic credentials. In 2009 the Palestinian Knesset member Ahmad Tibi quipped that Israel was indeed “Jewish and democratic: Democratic toward Jews and Jewish toward Arabs.” To many liberal Zionists, that might sound churlish. After all, Mr. Tibi has now served in Israel’s Parliament for almost 25 years. But he understands that the Jewish state contains a deep structure that systematically denies Palestinians legal equality, whether they are citizens or not.

Consider how Israel allocates land. Most of the land inside Israel proper was seized from Palestinians during Israel’s war of independence in the late 1940s, when more than half the Palestinian population was expelled or fled in fear. By the early 1950s, the Israeli government controlled more than 90 percent of Israel’s land. It still does. The government distributes that land for development and leases it to citizens through the Israel Land Authority. Almost half the seats on its governing council are reserved for the Jewish National Fund, whose mission is “strengthening the bond between the Jewish people and its homeland.”

This helps explain why Palestinians comprise more than 20 percent of Israel’s citizens but Palestinian municipalities, according to a 2017 report by a variety of Palestinian and Israeli human rights groups, encompass less than 3 percent of Israel’s land. In 2003, an Israeli government commission found that “many Arab towns and villages were surrounded by land designated for purposes such as security zones, Jewish regional councils, national parks and nature reserves or highways, which prevent or impede the possibility of their expansion.” Unable to gain permission, many Palestinian citizens build homes illegally — which are therefore subject to government demolition. Ninety-seven percent of the demolition orders in Israel proper between 2012 and 2014, according to the 2017 report, were against Palestinians.

This isn’t an accident. It’s the logical outgrowth of Israel’s self-definition. Israel is not a “state for all its citizens,” a concept Mr. Lapid said in 2019 that he has opposed “my entire life.” In 2018, when several Palestinian lawmakers introduced legislation “to anchor in constitutional law the principle of equal citizenship,” the Knesset’s speaker ruled that it could not even be discussed because it would “gnaw at the foundations of the state.” That same year, the Knesset passed legislation reaffirming Israel’s identity as the “nation-state of the Jewish people,” which means that the country belongs to Jews like me, who don’t live there, but not to the Palestinians who live under its control, even the lucky few who hold Israeli citizenship. All this happened before Mr. Netanyahu’s new government took power. This is the vibrant liberal democracy that liberal Zionists want to save.

Some Jews may worry that by advocating genuine liberal democracy — and thus exposing themselves to accusations of anti-Zionism — Mr. Netanyahu’s critics will marginalize themselves. But if they widen their vision they’ll see that the opposite is true. By including Palestinians as full partners, Israel’s democracy movement will discover a vast reservoir of new allies and develop a far clearer moral voice. Ultimately, a movement premised on ethnocracy cannot successfully defend the rule of law. Only a movement for equality can.

[Peter Beinart (@PeterBeinart) is a professor of journalism and political science at the Newmark School of Journalism at the City University of New York. He is also editor at large of Jewish Currents and writes The Beinart Notebook, a weekly newsletter.]