Unlike Iran, Israel Won't Face Sanctions

Israel is a mature, independent country, and it is entitled to decide for itself what kind of democracy best suits it - even if it is a suicidal democracy.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got it badly wrong: Israel isn't Iran, and comparing it to Iran - as she did during her remarks at a closed session of the Saban Forum where she expressed shock over the treatment of women in Israel - demonstrates either ignorance or malice.

First, Iran isn't considered a democracy: It openly and proudly adopted a system of government in which a religious scholar is the supreme leader. Israel, in contrast, wears a facade of democracy even as a select group of religious scholars who are only ostensibly committed to the law dictate the state's way of life.

Israel isn't Iran. Iran officially and openly separates unmarried men and women in public venues. In Israel, such segregation is against the law, but in practice, it is alive and well and sneering at the law. In the army, on buses that serve the ultra-Orthodox community and in state religious schools financed by the government, segregation flourishes.

Israel isn't Iran. In Iran, human rights organizations can receive assistance from a defined list of international organizations and institutions, "with the approval of the relevant government ministers," as Iranian law puts it. In Israel, proposed legislation would bar some organizations from receiving any money at all from foreign governments, while others would have to run the gauntlet of a Knesset hearing to get an exemption from, or at least a reduction on, the 45 percent tax.

Israel isn't Iran. In Iran, the supreme leader appoints the head of the judicial system. In Israel, the supreme leader uses every trick in the book to try to shape the Supreme Court's composition to his liking without soiling the facade of democracy.

This is a difference of vast proportions. Iran doesn't put on sanctimonious airs, doesn't cluck its tongue at others, doesn't disguise what it is and doesn't try to sell its system of government to the world as "an island of democracy."

Nevertheless, there's one regard in which Iran does resemble Israel: When the West, and especially the United States, assails Iran over its human rights situation, Iranian leaders respond in almost the exact same words that Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan used in response to Clinton's remarks: "I recommend that elected officials everywhere focus first of all on their own domestic problems."

But at least when Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei assails the human rights situation in the United States and advises it to investigate Guantanamo Prison before preaching morality to the Islamic Republic, his hands are clean of American money. When Israeli ministers advise Clinton to examine the mote in her own eye, however, they simultaneously continue to finance some of their ministries' activities with the American taxpayer's money.

This is the tax American citizens pay in exchange for the Middle Eastern asset they were promised: a democratic ally. Because for nondemocratic allies in the Middle East, they don't need to pay - not Saudi Arabia, not Kuwait and also not Qatar. And when Hosni Mubarak's Egypt - Israel's partner at the American feeding trough - angered the American administration and Congress with its human rights situation, Congress did not hesitate to discuss freezing $200 million of its annual aid. Indeed, back in 2007, it decided the freeze would remain in force until the secretary of state confirmed that Egypt was taking steps to advance human rights by reforming its justice system and training its police force.

Israel is neither Iran nor Egypt, because it won't face the threat of sanctions for undermining human rights, freedom of the press, the status of women or nongovernmental organizations. Israel has succeeded in forging a special status for itself as a kind of Amish community in whose moral behavior one doesn't intervene. It is the West's version of the extremist ultra-Orthodox Neturei Karta sect, which resembles a democracy only if one looks at it from a great distance and compares it to Iran or Sudan.

And herein lies the paradox: Those who harass human rights organizations and seek to place barbed-wire fences around them to prevent foreign countries from intervening in Israel's internal affairs, heaven forbid, will unsurprisingly have to deal instead with direct, nosy and crude intervention by the United States.

Clinton's remarks are a clear warning sign, the last crash barrier before the final descent to the bottom of the slippery slope. But like in Iran and Egypt, this intervention is seen in Israel as a hostile act. After all, Israel is a mature, independent country, and it is entitled to decide for itself what kind of democracy best suits it - even if it is a suicidal democracy.

Read this article in Hebrew: ישראל אינה איראן