Israel and the Emirates, Together in the Post-democratic Revolution

Carolina Landsmann
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz at a sitting of the government, Jerusalem, May 31, 2020.
Carolina Landsmann

For some reason, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hastily deleted a tweet where he wrote that Israel and the United Arab Emirates are both “advanced democracies.” According to Noa Landau’s excellent analysis in Haaretz last week, the agreement with the UAE is another step toward the end of the age of liberal democracy.

Netanyahu’s Israel has been walking this path for a long time now, making alliances with illiberal democracies. Landau noted the global trend in which liberal-democratic values are losing their importance and countries are sufficing with a democratic apparatus, a trend that hasn’t overlooked Israel, which is “still a democracy in the sense that it holds elections, and Benjamin Netanyahu keeps winning them.”

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For years the left has accused the right of jettisoning its liberal-democratic values, and the right has responded that the left is undermining democracy by refusing to respect the will of the majority. But the debate only underscores the assumption shared by both sides – that Israel’s democratic apparatus is alive and well.

Netanyahu’s tweet was considered a slip of the tongue because clearly the UAE, with a hereditary ruler and a ban on political parties, in which only 12 percent of the residents are citizens, isn’t a democracy, while Israel is. But is this a credible description of the reality in Israel?

That depends on a question that Israel has refused to answer for 53 years now: What is the status of the occupied territories? If they’re a potential Palestinian state, sovereign Israel can somehow be defended as a democratic country in which every person has an equal vote. But if the territories are perceived as part of one Israel, as the right wing contends, how can the country’s depiction as a democracy be defended?

The head of the B’Tselem rights group, Hagai El-Ad, has no doubt that Israel isn’t democratic. Out of 14 million people between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea (including Gaza), only about 9 million have the right to vote.

The reality is that for 53 years Israel and the territories have been a de facto single territorial entity, divided into units, some of them separate with different definitions. It can be said that in this “entity” there are three statuses: first-class citizens (Jews), second-class citizens (Arab Israelis) and noncitizens (Palestinians in the territories). The first two have the right to vote, the last does not. Second-class citizens can vote but their votes are not legitimate for establishing a government.

In traveling across this great Israeli entity, we meet various lifestyles and values, rights and obligations, legal systems and leaders – not to mention the different role of the police and the army in the different parts of this entity. Therefore, the anti-liberal revolution is much more radical. This isn’t only an abandonment of liberal values but an attempt to undermine the democratic system itself – not by election fraud but by abandoning the democratic maxim of one person, one vote.

Many supporters of annexation on the right make statements that undermine this maxim, proposing the Palestinians a chance for a good life without the right to vote (a state of all its consumers). In this sense, the UAE and the “United Israel Entities” (Jewish, Arab-Israeli, the territories) have more in common than it seems: advanced technology, a “slave”-based economy and a democracy with millions of subjects without citizenship.

Maybe this is what Netanyahu meant when he called Israel and the UAE “advanced democracies.” Israel is the technological spearhead but also the avant-garde of the post-democratic revolution.

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