The prime minister’s speech at the United Nations provided a glimpse of his concept of democracy: Naftali Bennett, at least according to his own words, has a vision of an advanced and normal country – “a lighthouse in a stormy sea, a beacon of democracy” – in which opponents are capable of conducting a businesslike discussion and cooperating in order to achieve shared goals.
It is evident that he means what he says, even if he makes generous use of clichés. Apparently Bennett really does see Israel as a liberal democracy, but his democracy depends on repressing a certain fact: “Look,” he explained to his listeners, “Israelis don’t wake up in the morning thinking about the conflict.” But nevertheless, the conflict – or the occupation, to call a spade a spade – still exists, even if the prime minister doesn’t think about it when he wakes up in the morning.
Even if Bennett represents the far right in the present government, he really is not alone in this belief. It is shared by many politicians and organizations that praise Israeli democracy, conduct practical discussions about its institutions and systems, and invite the world to see the new marvel of the “government of change.”
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid often rubs shoulders with the leaders of Western democracies, sees himself as someone who shares their values, and declares that the new government is “additional proof of the power of Israeli democracy,” and that “we have created something that the entire world is watching.” But when the world watches the occupation, Lapid prefers to look away.
Quite a lot of repression, forgetting or overlooking is required in order to see Israel as a democracy in the full sense of the word – as long as such a central part of its conduct, its resources and its very survival involve the clearly undemocratic rule over millions of people who lack rights, who live under a separate legal system without parliamentary oversight and with limited judicial review. Some people ignore the occupation, some justify it and some explain why it is unavoidable. But nobody can claim that the occupation itself is democratic.
The occupation is an exterritorial entity lacking human and civil rights. It enables Israeli citizens who are subject to the Israeli legal system to resort to violence against Palestinians – who are subject to the military legal system and are not citizens of any country – and to do so without fear of punishment and while the military turns a blind eye.
Aided by the fragile political situation and Bennett’s fear of being accused of being left-wing, the residents of the outposts and violent groups are behaving as they didn’t dare to behave during the tenure of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and violence against Palestinians and peace activists is becoming increasingly common. The weakness demonstrated by the legal system in the face of the attackers reinforces what we already knew: Although the military commander is sovereign over the Palestinian subjects on the ground, he is there in order to protect the Jewish population.
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The simple fact is that there is no other liberal democracy in the world that is occupying an area and a population like Israel, and for which occupation has become such a central part of its identity. Israel has been an occupying country for almost three quarters of its existence. During the lion’s share of the 54 years that have passed since 1967, the occupation was considered a temporary situation that would be solved some day in one of two ways – withdrawal or annexation. Israeli democracy, inevitably, depends on the temporary nature of the occupation, on the promise that one day it will end, and meanwhile it exists due to security constraints and serves as a bargaining chip for a future arrangement.
But the temporary situation hasn’t been temporary for a long time. Because Israeli governments have stopped trying to promote a diplomatic solution to end this intolerable situation – or even paying lip service to doing so. On the contrary: The actual policy is to expand the occupation, enlarge the settlements beyond natural growth, and adopt an overly sympathetic approach, in most cases, to new outposts established in the heart of the territories whose only purpose is to prevent a final arrangement.
When that is the policy, the question of the Palestinian partner, which in the past 20 years has served as an excuse for postponement, is simply irrelevant. The idea that has become entrenched in Israel is that a continuation of the occupation is not a problem of the Israelis but of the Palestinians, since the former don’t think about the conflict when they wake up in the morning, whereas the Palestinians, on the other hand, are used to waking up in the middle of the night because of it.
And still, the end of the occupation is in Israel’s interest. As long as it continues, Israel is at best a democracy with an asterisk. The desire to remove the asterisk and do away with the occupation must be essential to anyone who is interested in living in a liberal democracy. Clearly there are many tough obstacles. But even without reaching a diplomatic solution in the near future, there is a long series of steps that can be taken in order to reduce Israeli rule over the Palestinians and to promote as much Palestinian self-rule as possible, in a manner that even the delicate political circumstances of the government of change can permit. If not for peace, at least for democracy.
The writer is the executive director of the New Israel Fund.