Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Strategic Importance of Democracy for Israel

I receive a daily selection of links to articles from the Israeli Hebrew press prepared by Americans for Peace Now (sign up at links are to articles in both English and Hebrew). So I have been witnessing an ongoing assault by the Israeli Right on the structures of democracy in Israel. The Zionist Left is as weak today in the Knesset as the white South African Left was in the parliament in the 1970s. Liberalism there consisted of the English-speaking press, and in the 1980s of a number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as the Progressive Federal Party. The ruling National Party made parliament irrelevant by making other venues the focus of decision making in the National Security Management System. 

The Israeli Right, led by Israel Beitenu's Avigdor Leiberman, has gone after the Israeli NGOs and the Supreme Court. This was after they started over a year ago targeting Israel's Arab minority with the talk of mandatory loyalty oaths. For a discussion of how this is playing with Israeli Arabs see the two selections by Palestinians at Bitter Lemons.

They are now trying to pass laws designed to limit the amount of foreign funds that the NGOs can receive. They started out a couple of months ago by going after the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, which was an easier target. Now they are going after the NGOs and the Supreme Court. Because Israel lacks a constitution, but rather, substitutes for it a serious of "basic laws" passed by the Knesset, the Supreme Court is freer to craft its rulings without regard to actual text and constitutional history (much like the Warren Court in the U.S.). I can understand how this can be frustrating to the Right. At present there seems to be a battle taking place in the Right between Likud believers in European liberalism as supported by Ze'ev Jabotinsky and Menahem Begin, such as Dan Meridor, Benni Begin, and Reuven Rivlin and the Right outside of the Likud, which is based upon immigrants from the former Soviet Union and religious Jews. 

This could end up affecting more than Israel's domestic politics. Israel's status as the only real democracy in the Middle East is its last piece of strategic leverage in Washington among both parties. Previously Israel could rely on three things: first, sympathy with the Jewish state over the Holocaust; second, Israel's status as a reliable ally during the Cold War; and third, Israel's status as the only democracy in the region. It is now more than a generation--two generations--after the Holocaust and the horrors of that period have receded from a living memory to history. Since then there have been several more genocides: in Cambodia, in Bosnia, in Rwanda, and in Darfur. The Cold War has now been over for twenty years and in the new "global war on terror" Israel is as much a burden as an asset as an ally. This is a war fought mainly internally within the Arab world and the Muslim world for political dominance between fundamentalists and moderates. Israel is an asset for the fundamentalists as a scape goat for the backwardness of the societies involved. Thus, we are left with Israel's status as the only democracy in the region--which is also now under threat.

Over the last decade the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turkish) in Turkey, has been fighting in the courts to remove the special privileges granted the military under the constitution. Under the constitution the Turkish military had the right to intervene to safeguard Turkey, much as the militaries in Latin America had that "duty" (at least in their own self-conception) until the 1980s. This has been a net benefit for democracy in Turkey. But at the same time the AKP has pursued a vendetta against the military in the courts. The AKP has used the conspiracy theory of the Ergenekon, a shadowy organization that may or may not exist, to justify an all-out attack on its enemies.

With the Israeli Right doing the same thing in Israel, it is hard to draw much distinction between Israel and Turkey in terms of the development of their democracies. This may not be so important in the Republican Party, where Israel is supported by Evangelical Protestants for religious reasons having to do with belief in the role of Jews in the second coming of Jesus. But among Democrats it makes a good deal of difference. Democratic legislators look to American Jews for their cues regarding Israel. As a majority of American Jews belong to denominations not officially recognized as Jewish in Israel such as Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, and Reconstructionist Judaism--they are already alienated from the religious establishment in Israel. Now if the Right outlaws their ability to financially support organizations in Israel they will be further alienated. The Israeli Right risks alienating Israel not only from its only reliable ally, Washington, but from the most important Jewish community in the diaspora.

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