Israel Is More a Third-world State Than Democracy

The Katsav conviction does not excuse Israeli democracy from its flaws.

"This is a red-letter day for democracy," rang out the moment that news of the verdict against former President Moshe Katsav got out. "It is a time of spiritual elevation," the state prosecutor concluded, concomitantly expressing sorrow, of course, at that which befell a former president of the state.

One could also summarize it thus: One more rapist and liar stood trial, and it makes no difference whether he was a president or a foreign worker. But when a president is tried, it's a "red-letter day for democracy."

Therein lies the rub. Much has already been said, and will continue to be said, about the judicial conduct; the rejected plea bargain; the major role played by the media prior to the indictment, during the trial and afterward, but to me, to call the verdict a triumph for democracy is actually to invite a question: What would have happened had the court accepted Katsav's version of the events? Would it still have been "a triumph for democracy?" It's doubtful. The applause is not for the fact of the trial itself, but rather for the public hanging.

The greater the satisfaction from the conviction, the more it reflects the public's incredulity about the possibility that an Israeli court would even dare to convict a head of state. The courts are still seen as belonging to the elite, which closely protects its friends, and when it convicts a president the shock is great.

That view does not characterize a true democracy, but rather a Third-World state. It recalls the amazement and admiration that follows when a Bolivian court convicts a drug lord. In democratic states there is no such wonder over a court having the courage to find a head of state guilty. In such countries, leaders who are suspected of crimes generally resign even before they are indicted. The very suspicion of wrongdoing is a great insult to the public.

Equality before the law - a norm that, in a democratic state, should not provoke wonder - is suddenly revealed to be a rare commodity, an object of awe, to the point that even the state prosecutor cites this principle as the main pretext for the "triumph of democracy." If there is anyone to whom this norm should be self-evident, it is the state prosecutor, but apparently even he realizes the country he lives in.

Equality before the law is not measured solely in the court's willingness to judge each person who comes before it, rich and poor, male and female, citizen and foreigner, by the same standards. Equality before the law means one law for everyone, and if the law decides to discriminate between one citizen and another then this discrimination must be for the good - in order to heighten the rights of those who suffer, those with disabilities, those who are disadvantaged economically. Israel's code of law, and certainly its new antidiscrimation legislation, are far from providing equality before the law. Katsav's conviction will not help to instill the culture of equality.

There is another vaunted norm that the court has ostensibly achieved, this one on behalf of women: Women will know that from now on they can register complaints of sexual harassment against their employers and others in position of authority, and even win in court. That is good news indeed. In Israel there are about 18 reported rapes per 100,000 people. In Norway, Iceland, Britain and the United States the situation is even worse, but why are these countries perceived as being much more democratic than Israel? Because in these countries the status of women is not measured by the number of rapes or rape convictions, but rather by women's income levels, their opportunities for career advancement and laws that create conditions of equality between men and women.

In Britain and the United States, in New Zealand or in Sweden - where the rate of rape is 53 per 100,000 - religious leaders or public figures would never publicly warn women against dating minorities, and the slogan "Swedish women for Swedish men" would be completely incomprehensible. But that's Sweden.

Now that Israeli society is a card-carrying member of the community of democratic states, it can continue its usual practices: to flout High Court of Justice orders when it suits it, to prevent security prisoners from seeing their attorneys, to prevent Arab citizens from living in Jewish communities and to preserve the gender gap in wages.

That's not democratic? Oh, but we have the certificate, and there was a celebration. Didn't you hear about the rapist we convicted?