“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.


Joel Schalit is an American-Israeli writer based in Berlin. He is the
author of Israel vs Utopia.
Keith Kahn-Harris is honorary research fellow
at the Centre for Religion and Contemporary Society, Birkbeck College, in
London. He is the author (with Ben Gidley) of Turbulent Times:
The British Jewish Community Today
.This article has been reproduced under a Creative Commons licence from OpenDemocracy.net