Anyone who follows the news has no doubt come across the claim that “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.” Usually, this claim is followed by its logical inference: “As an island of freedom located in a region controlled by military dictators, feudal kings and religious leaders, Israel should receive unreserved support from western liberal states interested in strengthening democratic values around the globe.”
Over the years, some of the fallacies informing this line of argument have been exposed. Whereas many commentators have emphasized that foreign policy is determined by selfish interests rather than by moral dictates, few analysts have challenged the prevailing view that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.
In order to examine this issue, one must first determine Israel’s international borders. Insofar as Israel’s borders extend from the Jordan Valley to the Mediterranean Sea — the de-facto situation for over 36 years — then the state of Israel currently consists of a population of over 9 million people, 3.5 million of whom cannot vote.
De-facto, then, Israel is not a democracy. One-third of the demos does not enjoy a series of basic rights which make up the pillars of liberal democracies. The state of Israel has existed for 55 years and has controlled the Palestinian population in the occupied territories without giving them political rights for two-thirds of this period. Accordingly, the notion that the occupation is provisional or temporary should, by now, be considered an illusion concealing the reality on the ground.
If, however, one chooses to explore the issue exclusively from a de-jure perspective, that is, from inside the internationally recognized pre-1967 territories, it is still unclear to what extent Israel is a democracy.
There is the question of 400,000 Jewish Settlers — seven percent of the citizenry — all of whom enjoy full citizenship rights but do not live in Israel proper. This leads to a series of contradictions, not least the fact that Israel is the only country in the world where government ministers and parliament members live permanently outside its borders.
Even if one were to disregard this reality as well and were only to take into account the six million people living inside Israel proper, one would find an extremely tenuous democracy. The contradictions that have characterized Israel’s policies in the occupied territories are now catching up to the state, and their detrimental effects have become apparent for all to see.
Consider a report just published by the Israeli Democracy Institute (IDI), which like most other think tanks (in Israel and abroad), conceives of Israel in the de-jure sense, ignoring the de-facto situation. IDI examined several aspects of Israel’s democracy, and its findings suggest that “over the last few years there has been a significant decline in the Jewish population’s support of democratic norms on all levels: general support of the democratic system, support of specific democratic values, and support for equal rights for the Arab minority.”
IDI found that only 77 percent of the Jewish population supports the statement that “democracy is the best form of government,” the lowest percentage (alongside Poland) among the 32 countries for which there is available data. Over half the population (56%) is of the opinion that “strong leaders can be more useful to the state than all the deliberations and laws.” Fifty percent concur that if there is a conflict between security interests and the preservation of the rule of law, the former should take precedence. And only 57 percent agree with the statement that violence should never be used to attain political objectives.
More than half of the Jews in Israel (53%) state that they are against full equality for the Arabs; 77 percent say there should be a Jewish majority on crucial political decisions; less than a third (31%) support having Arab political parties in the government; and the majority (57%) think that the Arabs should be encouraged to emigrate. Not only is the majority of the Jewish population against the provision of equal rights for Arab citizens, half of the Jews are even unwilling to face up to the fact that Palestinian citizens of Israel are discriminated against.
Public trust in institutions has also declined in recent years due to widespread corruption and a lack of social cohesion. Yet, tellingly, the Israeli military — and not the legislature, courts or government ministries — is the most trusted institution.
Even if one were to stubbornly hold on to the illusion that Israel exists only within the pre-1967 borders, one would still have to acquiesce that while democracy may exist, it now stands on very shaky grounds. The great political theorist Montesquieu taught us as much. In addition to his well known claim that freedom can be secured only through the separation of the legislative, judicial, and executive powers, he asserted that if a regime is to maintain its form, the norms and values held by a people must correspond with the regime’s basic principles.
The IDI report clearly reveals that even within Israel proper the majority of the population no longer believes in the basic principles of democracy — equality and freedom — thus suggesting that democracy is in demise. If, however, one faces up to the fact that Israel’s borders reach the Jordan Valley, then democracy simply does not exist.
NEVE GORDON teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University Israel, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.