For decades now and until recently Israeli politicians and pro-Israel groups and individuals in the West had repeated what a growing number of analysts now believe is myth and an illusion; that Israel is a democracy, the only one in the Middle East! The fact is since its inception in 1948 Israel indeed functioned as a western style democracy that was open to all its citizens, Jews, Arabs and minorities. For decades it was governed by secular politicians and the country prided itself in embracing socialist ideals.
Still Israel denied the right of return to millions of Palestinians who were either forced to leave or had fled the war of 1948. It did that as it opened its doors to any Jew wishing to immigrate to Israel and become a citizen instantly. The Arab minority had citizen rights, like voting in elections, but overall they were treated like second-class citizens especially in receiving and benefiting from essential public services.
Following the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, Israel’s democracy became limited to Israeli citizens. The irony of being a democracy at home and an occupying power over millions of Palestinians was ignored by Israel’s Western supporters and apologists.
Even as Israel annexed East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and unleashed illegal colony building in the West Bank, thus violating a handful of UN resolutions and international conventions, Israel continued to present itself both as a democracy and a victim of its neighbours while demonising the Palestinians.
Those in the West who dared to speak out against Israel’s horrific treatment of the Palestinians and its occupation of Arab lands, were targeted by powerful Jewish lobbies and pro-Israel media outlets.
Despite consistent efforts to end Israel’s occupation and halt its illegal colonisation of Palestinian territories, Israeli politicians always found excuses justifying their failure to honour international law and relevant UN resolutions.
The Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt in 1978 effectively changed the equation of the struggle. That was a milestone in the prolonged saga of Palestinian suffering.
Veering to the right
In the 1970s Israel began leaning towards the right and away from secularism. A right-wing Likud party and smaller religious parties formed a coalition in 1977 that unseated the ruling Labor party of Israel’s founders. Thus began a consistent veering to the right and the empowerment of a handful of Zionist religious parties.
A brief lull both in Israel’s political shifting and in the struggle against the Palestinians took place in the early 1990s, when Israel and the PLO recognised each other and signed the Oslo Accords. But Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995 by a Jewish zealot ended all that and launched the age of a right wing, firebrand and rising Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
He would rule for a while and begin to change the face of Israeli politics forever. His mission was to bury the Oslo Accords and with it the two-state solution. Instead Israel would rule over the West Bank, and most of the Palestinians, forever.
Fast-forward to the upcoming April 9 Knesset elections, which could very well end the myth of Israeli democracy for good.
In a bid to win a fifth term in office and fulfil his programme of annexing most of the West Bank and change the political nature of Israel itself Netanyahu has allied himself with a far-right racist party Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), the so-called Kahanists, whose members openly call for the expulsion of Arabs from Israel and the Palestinian territories.
That move has outraged even Israeli apologists in the West, especially in the United States. For the first time US Jewish groups had openly rebuked a sitting Israeli prime minister.
But Netanyahu is not only an opportunist but a man who believes that Israeli democracy should be exclusive and not inclusive. He continues to attack Israel’s Arab minority and last week he shocked even Israelis by saying that “Israel is not a state of all its citizens” and Israel is “the nation state not of all its citizens, but only of the Jewish people”.
Last year his right-wing government passed the Jewish Nation-State law which defined Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people”, and asserted that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the state of Israel is unique to the Jewish people”.
If Netanyahu wins in April and forms what will be a fascist government in all but name with an anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian mandate and agenda, then the myth of Israeli democracy would finally be debunked. The reverberations of this on Israel itself, not to mention the Palestinians, would be catastrophic and far-reaching.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.