Israeli post-democracy: origins and prospects

Many voices warn that Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories is corroding the country’s democracy. Now, a worrying onslaught by Israel’s right-wing government on domestic dissenters raises further concerns. But the two issues are distinct as well as linked, say Keith Kahn-Harris & Joel Schalit: for the challenges to Israel’s democracy also have deep internal roots that must be identified if they are to be overcome.
Keith Kahn-Harris Joel Schalit
10 June 2010

“The middle east’s only democracy”. Anyone who follows the politics of the region - and even many who don’t - will undoubtedly be familiar with the term. There’s only one country it refers to and that country is Israel. The claim has been made across the six decades of Israel’s existence as a state, but it seems if anything to become more vociferous at times when the prospect of Israeli-Palestinian peace is at its most remote.

That at least is suggested by the experience of the 2000s, when Israel’s hardline stance following the failure of the latest peace process - reflected in its effective reimposition of military rule over the West Bank, its disregard of Hamas’s own democratic mandate following the Palestinian elections of January 2006, and its assault on Gaza in 2008-09 - has been accompanied by ever more emphatic efforts to brand itself as the sole democracy in its immediate neighbourhood.

The claim tends to be offered in the context of polemic; it is frequently contested, on a number of grounds; and the moral and political credit that Israel hopes to gain from making it is more often assumed than articulated. All this being said, it is both correct in a defined, technical sense and defensible in a broader, political one: that is, as a description of Israel’s internal political structures and processes (including electoral) inside its pre-1967 borders, and as a contrast to the Arab states on its borders and beyond (though the different democratic experiences of, for example, Lebanon and Iraq need to be considered on their own merits and not merely cited for the contrast they offer with Israel).

So even the most hardened of Israel’s critics would, in observing Israel’s febrile domestic politics with its frequent changes of government and party allegiance, find it hard to distinguish the Israeli variant from any other western-style democracy. Israel might be a state engaged in a colonial-settlement project, and it might also have been built (as have many other nation-states) on the ruins of another society. But it remains a recognisable parliamentary republic whose polity shares experiences and problems familiar across the democratic world.

A homing anxiety

This profound sense of itself as a democracy, which by that token makes the country an exception in the region, is woven into Israelis’ self-perception. This makes it all the more painful for many Israelis to feel obliged to lament that the country’s political character is now seriously threatened and that its democratic political institutions and culture are in effect under siege. It is even harder for them to confront the reality that as the repressive nature of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories is increasingly exposed to the light, Israel’s government has begun to treat sections of its own Jewish citizenry as it does Palestinians.

True, the project of settling the West Bank (and until the withdrawal of 2005, Gaza) has always carried dangers for Israeli democracy within the “green line” that demarcated Israel proper from the territories it conquered in 1967. The central conceits of the settlement project – that the occupied territories could be settled without prejudicing future peace deals, that the ambiguous nature of the territories could be maintained in perpetuity, that settlements could co-exist with some kind of Palestinian entity - have never been tenable. They rely on the false supposition that Israeli democracy could avoid being undermined by a fundamentally non-democratic project imposed on its closest neighbours.

Some astute Israeli observers understood from the very moment of the six-day war of 1967 that the “occupation” (ha kibush, in Hebrew) would have momentous implications for Israeli democracy. They argued that this central project of the Israeli political-military machine was - insofar as it created a state within a state, far different from that which existed in pre-1967 Israel - tantamount to a refounding of the Jewish state from the right. Alarm about the corrosive effects of colonial occupation on Israel has long been expressed by intellectuals, radicals and jeremiahs (such as the late Yeshayahu Leibowitz); but its spread can be measured in the way that even establishment political figures (such as Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert most recently) have publicly stated that without disengagement from Palestinian territory, Israel cannot remain a democracy.

Such views seem ever more pertinent in light of what has followed. Ehud Olmert’s government, led by his centrist Kadima party, was replaced following the election of February 2009 by a rightist coalition led by Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud; this both seeks to hold onto the maximum possible number of West Bank settlements and contains figures with explicitly anti-democratic instincts. The most prominent of these, foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, won office by leading his Yisrael Beiteinu party to electoral success on a platform that openly questioned the “loyalty” of Palestinian citizens of Israel and discussed restricting their civil rights.

But it has become increasingly clear that critics of Israeli government and state policies - the very people often most committed to the idea and reality of Israel as a democracy - are also the targets of the coalition’s policies. In its first year in office, the Netanyahu-led coalition has arrested and harassed journalists, anti-occupation and anti-military activists; attacked newspapers and media organisations; opened inquiries against NGOs; promoted an obsessive concern with the “delegitimisation” of Israel; and repeatedly flouted supreme-court rulings.

The high-profile dispute over Israel’s deadly commando-raid on 31 May 2010 on an aid-flotilla heading for Gaza, and the continued blockade of Gaza that the Mavi Marmara sought to break, naturally are far more widely reported in the international media than these cases of domestic harassment and repression. But in the broader perspective of Israel’s post-1967 experience, it does look as if the enduring anxieties of those who see a link between the colonial project and Israeli democracy itself are indeed coming very close to home (see Thomas Keenan & Eyal Weizman, “Israel: the third strategic threat”, 7 June 2010).

A dystopian prospect

These developments in themselves do not suggest that Israel inside the green line will, any time soon, dispense with elections or become a dictatorship. However, there is a real possibility that this Israel may drift into a kind of “post-democracy” (in Colin Crouch’s term): imposing restrictions on civil rights and the rights of minorities, the media and NGOs, in a way that erodes the checks and balances on the Israeli state. Israel would become a different kind of polity, one that in key respects might resemble Vladimir Putin’s Russia or (at best) Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy. Israel (or at least Tel Aviv) might keep its vibrant intellectual, cultural, even queer communities; but far from challenging dominant, rightist state power or the ongoing occupation, they will be mere semblances of the illusion that Israel remains a tolerant, liberal - democratic - society.

This dystopian prospect invites the response that an evacuation of all or most of the occupied territories would allow Israel, not just to grant the Palestinians the justice they deserve, but to preserve and revivify its threatened democracy. The problem here is that (as we have argued elsewhere), the chance of this happening are slim (see “An Israel-Palestine like no other nation”, Guardian, 21 April 2010). Even if Israel did fully withdraw to the green line, the “post-democratic” tendencies that have been set in motion cannot now easily be stalled. The reason is in part because the tendencies pushing Israel towards post-democracy are connected to more than the settlement project; they are also the product of possibilities that have long been inherent within Zionism. These possibilities relate not just to the ethnic exclusivism that has bedeviled much Zionist thought and practice, but to qualities that are part of many forms of nationalism.

Zionism, in important ways comparable to other nationalisms even if the details differ, sought to create a national Hebrew culture forged out of the disparate Jewish diaspora, and to erect a state for Jews. The strength of Zionism, particularly when compared to other middle-eastern nationalisms, was its success in attending to both aims simultaneously. As the Jewish state was being formed, as much attention was paid to building universities, opera-houses and newspapers – all the elements of a strong civil society – as to constructing armies and state bureaucracies. The strength of Israeli civil society has provided a powerful bulwark against the ever-present possibility that Israel would devolve into openly racist authoritarianism. In the post-democratic era, this bulwark is being eroded. Zionism is being reduced to a retrograde “statism” that seeks only to build state power, and is suspicious of any counterweights.

Zionism’s historical association with progressive politics is partly responsible for the all-too-belated recognition of Israel’s post-democratic potential. Many of the country’s founders were labour activists, anarchists, and political idealists. Their work, reinforced by the liberal political character of the post-1945 diaspora Jewish community, helped create a once inescapable image of a new state that was tolerant, collectivist, even feminist - all of them regarded as necessary cultural ingredients of the Israeli democracy that was being forged.

This image, and self-image, long provided camouflage for the more brutal realities of Israel’s formation and power-politics, as well as for western acquiescence in the oppression of Palestinian society. But it also contained elements of the kind of “invention” that Benedict Anderson has seen as central to modern nationalism. At its heart is the contrast between the political backgrounds of the majority of Israel’s immigrants-turned-citizens, and the acquired identities they established (or were ascribed) in the new country.

Many early immigrants to Israel were indeed, and saw themselves as, on the left. But the conditions of the time, the aftermath of genocide and war, meant that they were arriving from fascist, communist or authoritarian societies with no experience of liberal democracy. To escape such a legacy and build a humane new society was the inspiring fuel of many of the pioneers. Such emancipatory ideals are always hard to sustain; even more so when Israel lived amid crisis, engaged in regular wars with its neighbours, was forced to cope with economic inequality, and obliged its citizens to adapt to native social hierarchies in order to survive. This broad experience, with all the pressure it exerts on the impulse to create a living democratic politics, has survived generational changes and Israel’s big transition since the 1980s from socialism to neo-liberalism.

But a number of new components have been added to Israel’s social and political mix in the neo-liberal era, whose effects have if anything reinforced the tendency to “de-democratisation”. They include the growth of the country’s religious sector after the 1967 war; the influx of a post-Soviet contingent of immigrants, many of whom were profoundly hostile to any left-associated ideals (and even to the kind of social-democratic norms that were pervasive among many of Israel’s founders); and the enduring uncertainty over the borders of the state (a factor that itself is a propellent of the right). The permanent lack of a formal constitution becomes increasingly important in such circumstances (see Colin Shindler, “Israel’s rightward shift: a history of the present”, 23 February 2009).

A democratic path

What can be done to help stem the post-democracy tide in Israel? It is critical that the country’s civil society survives the current onslaught, so that there is some semblance of political pluralism that Israelis can identify as their own. To a great extent this is a struggle for Israelis alone. The judiciary, for example, must be defended against tendentious accusations that it is an agent of foreign influence. This is but one example of the type of initiative needed to strengthen Israeli civil society and moral order.

Israelis too must take responsibility for ending the occupation, both in their own and in the Palestinians’ interest. Many leftist campaigners and pro-Palestinian activists are wrong in believing that external pressure on Israel (through diplomatic, military and sanction-led means) will “solve” the overall situation, though foreign pressure on Israel does remain crucial in helping to delegitimise the occupation. The implication of the above, however is that even the end of the occupation will not prevent the dissolution of Israeli democracy inside the green line; only democratic action and persuasion from within Israeli society can do this. Moreover, any solution to the conflict - whether one-state, two-state or another kind of formulation - will ultimately need a fully democratic polity in Israel in order to work successfully.

The challenge for supporters of Israeli democracy is to find ways to support Israeli civil society (NGOs who oppose the occupation, for example) without providing ammunition to rightists who argue that such support is but a form of foreign subterfuge or colonialism. Here, the best route may be to spend as much time educating the diaspora that it is not just the occupation that’s undermining Israel’s future, but Israel’s own dangerously degraded political culture.

In turn, this may require the kind of broader perspective that we have tried to develop in this essay: namely that Israel’s political horizons were in historical terms always more limited than they once appeared, but that it has taken the rise of anti-democratic forces to national leadership for everyone, including Israelis, to figure this out.

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