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Looking back, it is strange how many years it has taken the liberals among us to understand that Israeli democracy needs safeguards - not against organizations trying to bring it down, or a political structure that can undermine it, or a too-powerful internal force that draws strength from the lack of a constitution (the Shin Bet security service, for example). Those who thought there was no problem with Israeli democracy, or the Arab minority in its midst, were strangely innocent.

True, there is an occupation. But in the Israeli mind, the occupation is temporary. The suspension of all human and civil rights is an extraordinary situation, an emergency situation, and thus it may be worse than a military dictatorship - after all, the army can do anything in the occupied territories. Millions of people are subject to this regime, and our democracy does not see them. Rather, it lives with the occupation as the exception, not the rule.

In contrast, Israeli democracy is careful not to talk about the constitutional status of the Arabs within its borders. It has established a devious system of laws and regulations to expropriate from them rights reserved only for Jewish citizens, and even for Jewish non-citizens. The real estate laws are an example of this, as are the actions of the Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Agency, which behave as if the state were only for Jews.

Public discourse - which perhaps arises because we understand we must seek international legitimacy - was always restrained, not to say duplicitous. The Koenig report, named for the Interior Ministry official who in 1976 recommended ways the government could discriminate against Arabs, caused a storm. However, no one protected Koenig, because official Israel upheld the rules of the game, maintaining a unified liberal tongue. It left non-democratic policy to the "security establishment."

In recent years, for the first time, the Shin Bet has dragged the debate about the Israeli Arabs into racist expressions by the center, not the margins. Some equated the politicians' statements and the PR against the constitution proposed by the Arab advocacy group Adalah with Kahane's speeches in the Knesset. Supporters of Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin and his centrist friends have turned the graffiti "Kahane was right" into their open political platform.

On May 20, the attorney general handed the Association of Civil Rights in Israel a letter from Diskin. The letter involved a complaint of harassment against the journal of the Arab party Balad. First, Diskin quotes the law: "The service is in charge of protecting the security of the state, and the processes of the democratic regime and its institutions from terror threats, sabotage, subversion, espionage and the revelation of state secrets. The service will therefore work to protect and advance other interests essential to the security of the state, as determined by the government and in keeping with any and all laws." He then informs the attorney general that "the service believes that subversion may also include working toward changing the basic values of the state by obviating its democratic or Jewish character, as a form of subversion against the processes of the democratic regime and its institutions." Israeli law defines the state as Jewish and democratic. The Shin Bet is now trying to turn the "and" into an "or."

Israeli democracy, in Diskin's terms, is protecting itself against the undermining of its nature as a democracy for Jews. This would not be so pathetic if a letter from the attorney general had not been appended to Diskin's letter saying: "The letter of the Shin Bet director was written in coordination with the attorney general and with his agreement, and the stance detailed in it is acceptable to the attorney general."

This is the fruit of the ongoing racist debate. The attorney general's seal of approval on the Shin Bet's interpretation of the law.