There’s Nothing Undemocratic About Protesting Benjamin Netanyahu’s Policies

The Israeli prime minister's decisions about West Bank Palestinians, who cannot vote, enjoy no democratic legitimacy at all.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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Palestinian school children walk past a section of Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank village of Abu Dis, on the outskirt of Jerusalem.
Palestinian school children walk past a section of Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank village of Abu Dis, on the outskirt of Jerusalem.Credit: AP
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

I learned this week that I hate democracy. “So much for Peter Beinart believing in democracy,” wrote Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. I advocate, wrote Rabbi Gideon Sylvester, “an anti-democratic approach.” According to Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin, I exhibit “contempt for democracy” and oppose “the principle of democratic rule.”

All this because I argued that American Jews should publicly protest when Israeli officials, hostile to the two-state solution, come to the United States. And that the United States should propose a two-state solution – along the lines of the 2000 Clinton Parameters – and make it clear there will be consequences if Israel’s rejects it. (I’m happy for the United States to punish Palestinians for rejecting it too, although such a statement would be almost redundant since Congress punishes, or threatens to punish, Palestinians all the time.)

Let’s pause to consider whether these suggestions betray the principle of democracy. First, respect for democracy does not require that one support the policies of a democratically elected government. It does not even require that one speak softly and politely, taking care not to offend the officials of a democratically elected government. One would think Rabbi Boteach would understand that, given that he recently accused Susan Rice of “callous disregard for genocide” in a full-page ad that featured the national security advisor surrounded by skulls.

Second, respect for democracy does not require one government to support the policies of another government, even if that government is democratically elected. The government of the United States is democratically elected and yet Israel has the right to oppose its policies on Iran. The government of Israel is democratically elected and yet the United States has the right to oppose its policies on settlements. Nor does the fact that a government is democratically elected mean other governments are obligated to give it foreign aid and take its side at the United Nations. It may be wise or unwise for the United States to give Israel billions in military assistance. (I think it’s wise). It may be wise or unwise for the United States to back a resolution calling for a State of Palestinian alongside the State of Israel. (Given that Benjamin Netanyahu will clearly not negotiate such a deal on his own, I think such a resolution is now worthy of U.S. support). But democracy has nothing to do with it.

Likewise, there is nothing undemocratic about citizens of one country (for instance, American Jews) protesting the representatives of another government (for instance, Israel’s) if they believe those representatives support policies they find abhorrent. If a French cabinet minister said the Jews in a territory under French control did not deserve citizenship and the right to vote while the Christians in that territory did, it would not be undemocratic for American Jews to protest her speeches. If the French cabinet minister had dedicated her career to enshrining that bigotry into law, it would not be undemocratic for American Jews to urge that America deny her a visa.

In 2005, for instance, the Bush administration denied a visa to Nahendra Modi, then the democratically elected chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, for having failed to stop riots against Muslims there. What’s the difference between that and denying visas to Israeli politicians like Uri Ariel and Naftali Bennett who seek to make permanent the denial of basic rights to Palestinians in the West Bank? If I’m anti-democratic for endorsing such a proposal, so is Michael Walzer, one of America’s most eminent democratic theorists (and an ardent Zionist), since he’s among the people who came up with the idea in the first place.

There’s nothing undemocratic about one democracy exerting pressure on another democracy to change its policies. The United States does it every day. Actually supporting a coup to overturn a democratically elected government is probably going too far. But not according to Tobin, who last year endorsed the coup that removed a democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood leader from power in Egypt. Tobin urged America to help Egyptian dictator Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi ensure “that the Brotherhood will never get a chance at power,” even via the ballot box. This from the guy who accused me of “contempt for democracy” because I urged American Jews to publicly protest Netanyahu’s policies in the West Bank.

But even if you remain unconvinced by everything written above. Even if you really do believe that foreign governments and citizens have no right to oppose or sanction policies enacted by democracies, it doesn’t actually matter. Because in the West Bank, Israel is not a democracy.

Everyone in the West Bank lives under Israeli control. The Israeli army – and the army of no other state – can enter any square inch of the West Bank anytime it wants and arrest anyone it wants, including officials of the Palestinian Authority, to which it generally subcontracts those functions it prefers not to perform itself. Yet the Palestinians who constitute the vast majority of people living under Israeli control in the West Bank cannot vote in Israeli elections. Only the Jewish minority can.

This means that when Benjamin Netanyahu makes decisions affecting people inside the Green Line, where everyone has the right to vote, his decisions enjoy democratic legitimacy. But when Netanyahu makes decisions affecting people in the West Bank, the vast majority of whom cannot vote because they are Palestinian, his decisions enjoy no democratic legitimacy at all. After all, if Israel really were a democracy in the West Bank, and the millions of Palestinians there could vote in Israel’s elections, Netanyahu would not be prime minister.

One might compare the democratic legitimacy of Netanyahu’s policies in the West Bank to the democratic legitimacy of a Mississippi governor in the 1950s whose segregationist policies relied on the systematic disenfranchisement of blacks. But the Israeli situation is worse. In the 1950s, Mississippi’s leaders were only disenfranchising one-third of their people. In the West Bank, Israel’s leaders are disenfranchising over 80 percent.

How, then, is it undemocratic to protest Netanyahu’s radically undemocratic decision to condemn West Bank Palestinians to permanent disenfranchisement by declaring that they can vote neither in Israel nor in a Palestinian state, whose creation he will not allow? Maybe someone who doesn’t hate democracy can explain it to me.

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