Intelligence Squared

Israeli Democracy in Peril

Why Daniel Levy thinks Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians is poisoning the Jewish state from within.

Daniel Levy speaking at a J Street U. talk at the Hillel of the University of Washington, Seattle, Washington.
Daniel Levy will argue that the United Nations should admit Palestine as a full member state during a Slate/Intelligence Squared live debate on Jan. 10

Joe Mabel/Wikipedia

Daniel Levy, the diplomat and Middle East scholar who helped launch J Street, wants desperately to see Israeli democracy prevail over sectarian tensions. But he despairs of that happening as long as an undemocratic system of occupation flourishes beyond the Green Line. He will join Palestinian National Initiative leader Mustafa Barghouthi at the Slate/Intelligence Squared live debate on Jan. 10 to argue that the United Nations should admit Palestine as a full member state. Across the aisle, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs President Dore Gold and former State Department adviser Aaron Miller will oppose the motion. Read interviews with Barghouthi and Gold here and here. Check out Miller’s countervailing article here.   

While 2011 will be remembered as a tumultuous year in the Middle East, that most headline-grabbing of regional issues—the Israel-Palestine conflict—barely merits a footnote. The glacial pace of developments on that front could not have been more out of sync with the surrounding frenzy. There has been no Palestinian Spring to date (although there have been weekly demonstrations in Palestinian villages impacted by Israeli land confiscations) and the entire year passed without even a day of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks (those were in part resumed on Jan. 3 in Jordan, albeit surrounded by realistically low expectations). Instead, 2011 was marked more by continuity than by change—more occupation, more settlements, more Palestinian disunity, and the continued prevalence of strategic myopia on all sides.

All of which was quite the opposite of what had been promised. The U.N. General Assembly in September was billed to be a dramatic point of departure on the Israel-Palestine scene. The Palestine issue was again to be forced to the forefront of the international agenda, and even if Palestine did not immediately become member state 194 , there would be no turning back as diplomacy, urgency, and popular mobilization entered a new phase, all set against the backdrop of the Arab Awakening. Except that the Palestinian U.N. move has so far played out as a damp squib: There has been no vote on membership at the Security Council (and an American veto is guaranteed anyway); the Palestinians did not go to the General Assembly and ended their campaign of joining U.N. organizations almost before it began (bar UNESCO); and there has been no accompanying diplomatic or ground game. The PLO seems to have come down with a bad case of strategic discombobulation.

Perhaps surprisingly, it was Israeli society that more closely resembled its neighbors in 2011. Developments within Israel seemed to predict exciting progress: A tent city sprang up in the center of Tel Aviv, and the J14 social protest movement mobilized some of the largest rallies in Israeli history with a call for greater equality and social investment. But most of the year—plus the start of 2012—has been characterized by the ever more visible fraying of Israeli democracy, as Israel’s lurch toward intolerance, fundamentalism, and xenophobia gathers pace. This phenomenon, unlike the J14 movement, was as much top-down as it was bottom-up. While radical settler youths were uprooting Palestinian olive groves, attacking Israeli progressives, and disabling IDF jeeps, members of the governing coalition in Parliament were advancing legislation to restrict the freedom of Israeli human rights NGOs, trying to prevent Israel’s Palestinian Arab citizens from commemorating their own history , and holding committee hearings on the “anti-Israeli” activities of the American J Street organization (Likud lawmaker Ofir Akunis actually praised Sen. Joe McCarthy as a role model).

While the connection between Palestine’s frozen bid for U.N. membership and Israel’s increasingly frigid democracy might appear tenuous, it is in fact anything but. Palestine’s flop at the U.N. is a shame with respect to the two-state solution and the emergence of an effective nonviolent Palestinian strategy for freedom. But, paradoxically, it is perhaps most devastating for the future of Israeli democracy.

Israeli democracy has come under a twin assault—the culmination of two long-term trends that appear to have reached a tipping point. And now, at the start of 2012, it is sadly unclear whether the democratic system in Israel will be robust enough to face down the threat (especially if Palestine remains under Israel’s nondemocratic tutelage).

The first part of that challenge to Israeli democracy relates to the ongoing friction between state and religion—the Jewish part of being a Jewish democratic state. Though never a majority in Israel, the orthodox and ultra-orthodox Haredim were granted a monopoly on all issues relating to personal status (marriage, divorce, burial, etc.); received exemptions from military service; and collected state funding for a separate school system and adult religious learning seminaries (such yeshivas further excused the Haredim from participation in the labor force). Over the years, high birthrates and communal cohesiveness increased Haredi clout, along with the group’s political appetite for legislating benefits for themselves and restrictions for others. The quid pro quo has seen an increasing strain placed on non-Haredi Israel, one that has too frequently spilled over into the politics of hate against the ultra-orthodox.

The Haredim still account for only about 10 percent of Israelis, but that belies the rapidly changing social demographics of the country: 25 percent of first-graders are Haredi and that ratio is increasing by 1 percent each year. There are new neighborhoods and towns (including the two fastest-growing settlements over the Green Line, Modin Illit and Beitar Illit) dedicated to Haredim. There is an assertive self-confidence, and occasional extremism, from elements of the Haredi community across a range of issues—from transportation on Sabbath to gender segregation on buses and streets in Haredi neighborhoods. The intercommunal clashes in the part-Haredi town of Bet Shemesh have dominated the headlines in Israel in recent days.

This is not the place to fully explore what is a complex issue, but suffice to say that the potential Haredi challenge to Israel democracy has no easy answer. It can, however, potentially be weathered. For the Haredim, the bottom line is more about preserving a communal way of life than about imposing a nondemocratic vision across all aspects of Israeli society.

Which brings us to the second avenue of assault on Israeli democracy—again, not of new vintage but recently turbo-charged. That is all about reconciling the democratic part of the Jewish democratic state equation. With their tradition of liberal politics and struggles for equality, most American Jews may think the seamless merging of Jewish and democratic sounds like a no-brainer. Seen in the Israeli context, however, it is a far less obvious communion. Twenty percent of Israelis are non-Jewish Palestinian Arab, an indigenous community decimated by the dispossession and displacement that accompanied the coming into being of the Jewish state. They’re often treated by officialdom as potential fifth columnists, and they face ongoing institutionalized discrimination. For many years it seemed that the formal structures of Israeli democracy (universal suffrage, an open media, a robust court system) combined with sufficiently pragmatic leadership would block an ethnocratic or theocratic manifestation of Jewish statehood from swallowing people’s key universal rights.

But something else has also been going on: Israel’s maintenance of an illegal occupation and thoroughly undemocratic system beyond the Green Line (only partially mitigated by the creation of a Palestinian Authority lacking in sovereign powers). Under any circumstances, it would be difficult for a democratic entity to run a democratic system in one space and an undemocratic one in another over a prolonged period of time. This has been the Israeli reality for 44 years and counting. The shortcuts taken by a nondemocracy in depriving people of rights (how Israel manages the Palestinians in the territories) have started to seep back over the Green Line into “Israel proper.” The inevitable moral corrosion that accompanies the maintenance of an illegal foreign occupation has blunted Israeli moral sensibilities at home. These are long-term trends.

What is new is the increasingly vocal and open advocacy for implementing a version of the occupation’s nondemocracy in Israel itself. A coalition of the national religious (settlers, for shorthand) and nativist nationalists (themselves not infrequently immigrants from the former Soviet Union) are pursuing a Jewish ethnocratic state at the expense of a Jewish democratic state. The space of democracy and dissent in Israel is being squeezed by attempts to curtail the freedom of NGOs, to reconfigure the selection process for Supreme Court justices, and to enhance control over the media by the government and government-loyalists. (Remember, too, that Israel has always been a very imperfect democracy for its Palestinian Arab citizens.) The purveyors of this vision for Israel stake a strong claim to being the authentic Zionists. Today, they are the ones in the ascendancy. While Israeli liberals tend to obsess far more about the “Haredi threat,” it is the settler-nationalists that have a vision for all of Israel, not just for one sub-community—and it’s a deeply undemocratic one.

It is hard to see how democracy will emerge victorious in Israel if the country still has to justify and manage an undemocratic occupation. The struggle for democracy in Israel needs to include the struggle to end occupation—and to create a genuine democracy for all Israeli citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. We must acknowledge a rather self-evident truth: that Israeli society, in the face of this twin assault, is finding it rather difficult to summon the courage and wisdom to end the occupation. Israel might need some help from the Palestinians. In order to take the steps necessary to salvage its own democracy and even its own future, it might need the Palestinians to make the status quo less bearable.

Palestine’s admission to the U.N. would not have changed everything over night, but it would have been a step on the path to a disincentive structure that might challenge the status quo. The Palestinians have alternatives. One of them is to wait: wait for two states to become impossible and for Israeli democracy to further erode. Much as official Israel and its most chest-thumping supporters in the U.S. took umbrage at the U.N. membership bid, it might be Palestinian patience, rather than the impatience demonstrated by the U.N. application, that will have more devastating consequences for Israel’s longevity.