A Palestinian's Message to Israel: Congratulations on Your Democracy – Now Fight for Your Future

This world has a brighter future; achieving it is contingent on our actions.

Nizar H. Farsakh
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Electoral ballots representing all the parties are displayed for the press at the headquarters of the Elections Committee, February 24, 2015.Credit: AFP
Nizar H. Farsakh

I would like to congratulate the Israelis on their elections. Free and fair elections are always a victory; indeed, a blessing. A blessing made by humans, not circumstances nor arbitrary powers, but by average citizens choosing to take that path over violence, and accepting the results every time. In your case, 20 times so far. That is no small achievement, for there is no shortage of societies that have chosen shortcuts, violence or military coups. Your choice of democracy is a testament to the values you’ve been brought up on and to the culture you uphold day by day.

Yet, there is a danger in democracy. The danger lies not in election results, but when sight is lost of the values at the heart of this form of government. Not too long ago, a Jewish Israeli killed your prime minister, convinced that his act would save the country. He thought he knew better than the millions who elected the premier, and, more importantly, he felt he had the duty to force his personal preference upon his fellow citizens, despite the majority's choice. In doing so, this individual stripped the public of its democratic right and agency. Even today, Israel is struggling to secure democracy. Who would have thought that in an OECD country of the 21st century people would demand that women sit at the back of the bus? Democracy and freedoms are not naturally occurring phenomena, but living organisms that require nurture and protection, or are otherwise susceptible to atrophy and decay.

For those of you who are unhappy with the election results, it is up to you to look at this as a defeat or a learning opportunity. As my chemistry teacher taught me, an experiment is never wrong; your theory is. Take what you learned to improve your theory. The challenge is how to change the vote. If you want a different future for Israel, then tactically changing the government or wresting power will not be enough. You need to strategically shift the electorate to translate that change into the government you desire.

That will happen only when you work on your areas of weakness. Get closer, listen harder, and hold tighter those who are most adverse to your position. They are the ones pulling in the other direction, and they are the ones whom you’re asking to make the greatest change. The resistance will be commensurate. All the more reason to spend extra time and resources on them.

For those of you who are happy with the results, I quote the political scientist Ian Lustick in asking you this: Can you foresee a future for Israel that is both desirable and possible? If you do, then it is your responsibility to show your adversaries how the current political program will lead to it and evidence that it is in fact possible. Saying, “When Arabs love their children more than they hate us” is a cheap cop out. Your grandchildren deserve better from you than to put their fate in the hands of others.

Benjamin Netanyahu may have won this election, but he will not be prime minister forever. If you believe his path is the right path, your work has only just begun. You need to engage your adversaries and persuade them of your vision. Show them how his policies are building a secure and prosperous future (in this neighborhood, not Scandinavia). But keep in mind that waiting for your environment to change is not a strategy.

I understand that it may sound strange – or even out of place – for me, a Palestinian, Arab Muslim, to give such advice, but it is exactly because I’m all of those that I say this. Yes, the whole Arab world is in flames and, yes, Muslims are being challenged in their faith and identity to cataclysmic levels. There is a horrific fight for the heart and soul of Arab identity and the Islamic faith, but we are finally having that long-overdue conversation. For decades, the Arab and Muslim worlds have focused on fighting exogenous challenges while avoiding dealing with our internal challenges.

Now we’re airing it out. It is ugly and it will take time, but it is finally happening. I see this slow, yet tectonic, shift happening among my pious family members who, for years, have been supporting military approaches but are now starting to see that violence often has a circular trajectory. I see it in Yemeni religious clerics who are advocating the merits of equal citizenship (including for Jewish Yemenis) in ways that put them to the left of progressive Arab parties. I see it in European Muslims who are saying to ISIS, "Not in my name" – incidentally, something we learned from conscientious Jews all over the world. I, myself, have discovered scores of Muslim activists who are working phenomenally to counter the threat of ISIS. I guess it takes a Goliath for a David to appear. And when David sees Goliath, he knows he has to fight him before he figures out how.

We each have our work cut out for us. Call me nave, call me utopian, but I believe this world has a brighter future. Yet, that future is not inevitable; it is contingent on our actions. Howard Zinn said it best: "And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory." Israelis, the time to build your future is now; get to work.

Nizar H Farsakh is based in Washington D.C., where he works to support civil society in the Middle East and North Africa. He was the General Director of the PLO general delegation in Washington from 2011 to 2013 and an advisor to Palestinian negotiators from 2003 to 2008.

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