Why Israel is Not a Democracy


Ilan Pappé is a professor with the College of Social Sciences and International Studies at the University of Exeter in the UK, director of the university’s European Centre for Palestine Studies, co-director of the Exeter Centre for Ethno-Political Studies, and political activist. His books include A Modern History of Palestine, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine and Gaza in Crisis (with Noam Chomsky).

FRANK BARAT: The USA recently vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling all Israeli settlements illegal and an obstacle to peace () saying that it  harmed chances for peace talks. Interestingly, all other countries voted FOR and the US faced criticism from its European allies. The US might seem more and more isolated when it comes to Israel. What is Israel strategic importance for the US nowadays and has it changed since 1967?

Ilan Pappé: I think that Israel’s importance to the United States is still the same as it always has been. We have to wait and see whether the Arab revolutions will change it but at the time that that veto was given I think that even if there was a fundamental impact of what happened in the Arab world on American thinking on Israel, it’s too early for it to be shown in American policy. So my guess is, and we’ve seen it throughout the Barack Obama administration policy towards Israel, that the same pressures that worked and formulated American policy towards Israel in the Bush administration are still at work in the Obama administration. So nobody should have been surprised by the fact that Obama vetoed this resolution and if there would be another one there would veto it again, although I do think that the fact that the European member States did not join the Americans on this is a sign of the overall trend, that we can see, you call it isolation of the United States, I would call it the beginning of an internal process of rethinking American policy, which will take quite a while to mature but is definitely happening.

FB: It was reported on Haaretz and the Guardian that Angela Merkel had a very tough telephone call with Netanyahu about the peace process, telling him: “”You are the one who has disappointed us. You haven’t made a single step to advance peace.” Coming from Germany, Europe’s number 1 supporter of Israel (with Poland), this is quite extraordinary. Could we witness a change in Europe stance towards Israel soon? More importantly, could Europe play a more balanced role than the US in the Palestine question?

IP: We have to be careful here. It’s true about Angela Merkel as much as it is true about Barack Obama. What they want instead of the Netanyahu government, which is definitely a kind of government they don’t like to deal with, is a central Zionist government, the Kadima government, which I will remind you, according to the Al Jazeera leaks, refused even to accept the most generous and stupid ever offer the Palestinian leadership has made to the Israelis under Olmert. So when Angela Merkel is angry with Netanyahu, she wants to see Tzipi Livni as a Prime Minister which will not constitute any change in the Israeli policy or will in any way ease the oppression of the Palestinians. So that’s one point, so this is not that much of good news in the fact that they are angry with Netanyahu. Time will tell whether this may represent something more profound which is the undemocratic situation in Europe by which you have a public opinion which is anti Israeli and pro Palestinian, but is not reflected in the policies of the political elite. It’s possible that this also reflect a wish by politicians such as Merkel to represent more faithfully the basic impulse and positions of the European public towards Israel but I think we have to wait and see whether this moment of transformation is really taking place in front of our eyes.

FB: The recent “Palestine Papers” have confirmed that Israel and the US were the 2 main rejectionists in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Instead of using the papers to expose Israel rejectionism, the PA has attacked Al Jazeera, the messenger. How do you explain this and how long do you think the PA will be able to play the “collaborator” part before a new type of intifada will erupt?

IP: It’s very easy to understand why the PA attacked Al Jazeera. It came at a very unpleasant moment where all around the Arab world people were asking for more democracy, transparency and fair representation and what the Al Jazeera leaks revealed was that the PA was the exact opposite of all  these things. So I’m not surprised that they’d rather attack Al Jazeera than Israel. As far as the longevity of the PA is concerned, this really can only be connected to more general transformations. I don’t think that there would be an internal Palestinian transformation without several things happening beforehand. One is the successful continuation of the kind of transformations we have seen in the Arab world. A democratisation process in action rather than democracies, as kind of final outcome, even a continued process of democratisation in the Arab world is one thing which will encourage people to get rid of the PA. Secondly the movement of the civil society campaign against Israel into the sphere of political elite and political power. Thirdly and most importantly, you still need to find a solution for the question of Palestinian representation. Because it’s very clear that the PA is not the PLO, but it’s not very clear who is the PLO. Only the Palestinians, in almost an impossibly fragmented reality, have to find the way of re-awakening the process of representation. If you have Palestinian representation and you have a change in the Arab world and you have a political elite in the West that is willing to do something that its public wants it to do, I think that the PA will disappear and this will be  a first station in the trip for more fundamental transformations on the ground altogether.

FB: Some extraordinary events have taken place in the Arab World in the last few months. The scenes on Tahrir Square in Cairo, for example, will stay in people minds for years. People in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Yemen..took the streets and protested about lack of jobs, access to education, repression, corruption…and got rid of their Western backed dictator. A friend of mine called this “the second step of the decolonisation process”. What’s is your view on this and also of the Libya situation, where sanctions have been voted at the UN and where NATO has talked about a military intervention?

IP: Right, first of all I would agree with the term “the second phase of decolonisation” or second phase of post colonialism. Its a very accurate term to describe what we are seeing there. I think it’s a very important moment for all of us, not only people who live in the Middle East but also people that engage with the Arab world and think that they understood what is going on there, usually through tools which misrepresented the Arab world and actually portrayed it in a very negative way. So I think the first thing to say about what’s happening is that there is not only the assertion of self dignity in the Arab world, it’s a defining moment for the West and its rather colonialist attitude towards the Arab world. Secondly of course we are talking about process in motion. We see Libya as a painful reminder that it would not be as easy as it has been in Egypt everywhere, nor is it clear that the Egyptian story is over but I do think it brings a lot of hope. It’s the first time I remember in my lifetime that there are good news coming from the Arab world and by this very sheer sort of sense of positivity or positive energy that comes from there, it’s a moment of no return. As an historian I keep reminding myself that a moment of no return does not mean that immediately you will have the kind of better reality that you want to happen. It means that you have to be alert, that there will be a lot of powers and a lot of actors, including Israel, who would make the best they can to make this moment disappear. So you cannot even be passive about it, you have to be active, each one of us in their own way, to help these revolutions to take place, and like in the case of Palestine, there has to be a clear distribution of labour about what everyone can do for this. But it is a dramatic and fantastic moment which I think also, in the long run, will affect Palestine in a very very positive way.

FB: What is the more global implication of the Arab world “revolutions”? Are Israel and the US right to feel threatened?

IP: Yes, there are two different issues here. The global implication is that whether these are academics, journalists or politicians, the schematic way in which they describe society and divide it into actors or factors that are active and can change reality and those that are recipients and can’t change reality has been dismantled, has collapse. So I think that the global implication is that you can have as much as economic and political and military power as you can, there are processes which you cannot control. Maybe it is because of the internet, maybe it’s because of impulses that push the  younger generation around the world, but there is a kind of unanimity between British students protesting in London, and Paris, and those protesting in Tunisia, Algiers and Cairo. That sort of teaches us that the way the world is represented through the eyes of its western elite has been dealt a serious blow, which is good news. As for the United State and Israel, I think the US is a bit more complex than Israel, so to make it a short answer instead of a long one, I would say that those in America, and there are so very important people in America, who relied on Israel in order to guide them in the politics of the Middle East, and Israel, are panicking. This is a moment of panic. I have been to Israel many times since the revolutions have started and Israel is in a real panic. They understand that the usual arsenal of power and diplomacy is useless in the face of what’s happening in the Arab world. They panic because they feel that if indeed democracy would appear on their footsteps and around them, they could not sell the fable that they are the only democracy in the Middle East and they would be in fact painted as another Arab dictatorial regime. That could lead to new American thinking, and a new American thinking, in the eyes of many Israelis is tantamount to the end of Israel as we know it.

FB: As coordinator of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, I am now preparing the next session of the tribunal which is going to take place in South Africa and will talk about the crime of apartheid in relation to Israel. For many, Israel is a democracy, because everyone is able to vote and Arabs are represented in the Knesset So is Israel a democracy?

IP: No, Israel is definitely not a democracy. A country that occupies another people for more than 40 years and disallow them the most elementary civic and human rights cannot be a democracy. A country that pursues a discriminatory policy against a fifth of its Palestinian citizens inside the 67 borders cannot be a democracy. In fact Israel is, what we use to call in political science a herrenvolk democracy, its democracy only for the masters. The fact that you allow people to participate in the formal side of democracy, namely to vote or to be elected, is useless and meaningless if you don’t give them any share in the common good or in the common resources of the State, or if you discriminate against them despite the fact that you allow them to participate in the elections. On almost every level from official legislation through governmental practices, and social and cultural attitudes, Israel is only a democracy for one group, one ethnic group, that given the space that Israel now controls, is not even a majority group anymore, so I think that you’ll find it very hard to use any known definition of democracy which will be applicable for the Israeli case.

FB: What is your nationality, Ilan?

IP: I don’t have a clear nationality. I have a citizenship, an Israeli citizenship. Funnily enough I also have a European nationality because as second generation European jews we are entitled to have an European passport, which is not equivalent to nationality but it obfuscate the question of nationality. I would like to think myself as the member of a potential new nation that would emerge in the secular democratic state of Israel where it would be a combination of a society made of a third generation  of the settler colonialist who came to Palestine in the late nineteen century and the indigenous native population. Whether at the time that this would happen people would still define themselves in national term or not, I don’t care and I don’t know, but I feel that I am part of a settler colonialist community which pretends to be a national community by itself and is recognized as such, like the Australian and the New Zealander ones, but I think that if this is the only kind of  national identity open to me, I reject it and would like to work towards something much better for me and for others.

FB: For many people the Israel-Palestine conflict is about the Holocaust and the fact that the Jews of Europe had to find a place to live where they felt safe. Once the Jews arrived in Palestine, a dispute started about the land, between them and the indigenous inhabitants, the Palestinians. The dispute has now been going on for more than 60 years, both parties finding it impossible to reach a peace settlement. Is this what the conflict is about, in your opinion?

IP: No, no definitely not. The conflict is not about the Holocaust. The Holocaust is manipulated by the Israelis in order to maintain the conflict for their own interests. The conflict is a simple story of European settlers coming in the late nineteenth century motivated by all kinds of ideas, the dominating idea was that they needed a safe haven because Europe was not safe and that this was their ancient homeland. It happened before, this is not the only place where people have those weird ideas that they can come after 2000 years and reclaim something which was supposedly theirs. Because there were enough imperial powers willing to support this colonisation project they succeeded in putting a foot-hold and started first purchasing land and they exploited a certain land regime by which you could buy land from people who did not really owned it and expel the people who really cultivated it. But even that was not really successful. As you probably know, by the time the British Mandate ended, the Zionist movement succeeded in purchasing less than 7% of Palestine and bringing in a number of refugees, including after the Holocaust, which was not really impressive. All and all the Jewish community in the world prefer to go to Britain, the United States or stay in Europe, despite of the Holocaust. A very tiny minority came to Israel and that’s why contrary to their earlier wishes the Zionist movement decided to bring Jews from the Arab world and de-arabise them so they would become Jewish and not identify with the Arab population. So the conflict is about a colonialist movement that because of the Holocaust succeeds in not appearing colonialist in a world that does not like colonialism anymore and is using all kinds of means and alliances to continue to colonise, ethnically cleanse and occupy. It’s an incomplete atrocity. Zionism is an incomplete atrocity against the Palestinian People. Had it been complete, as the whites did in Australia and New Zealand, you probably would not have had a conflict today. It’s good to understand why it’s incomplete. That’s because of Palestinian steadfastness and resistance. There you have it in a nutshell. A colonialist project trying to complete its plan, indigenous people resisting it, that would be a conflict, unless you decolonise Palestine and you move towards a post colonialist stage in the history of this place.

FB: You have been a human rights activists for many years now, fighting on all fronts to help the Palestinians, with unfortunately, very little results. More lands is being stolen everyday, more people die, more houses are destroyed and the international community reward Israel for this. So what is the way forward for the Palestinians and their supporters?

IP: First thing to say is that we need to have a more comprehensive historical view of successes and failures. I don’t think it is all failure. The present Palestinian community in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the present Palestinian community inside Israel would not crack. It’s very clear. Whatever the Israeli policies would be, Israel cannot that easily contemplate another ethnic cleansing and that’s very important to understand. Secondly, I think that something has changed in public opinion, granted, it has not been translated into policies but we may be in the defining moment for Palestine without yet knowing it. So I would like to have a more balanced view about failure and success for all of us. I think it’s important to understand, it’s not all failure. However I do agree that we need a clear strategy forward. There are three things that I would very shortly and very briefly point out. One is that we need a better understanding about the distribution of labour between outside and inside. Namely the Palestinian political system needs to get its act together, in terms of representation, unification and so on and solidarity movement should not try to replace it on questions of representation but should concentrate in turning Israel into a pariah State which I think is very important in order to get things moving. So one is distribution of labour.

Secondly, I think we have to change the dictionary We should stop talking about the peace process, we should give up the idea of 2 state solution, in my mind, we should talk about colonialism again, anti-colonialism, change of regime, ethnic cleansing, reparations in the larger term. All kinds of known phrases which are very applicable to the situation of Palestine and because of Israeli propaganda and American support for that propaganda, we did not dare to use them. We have to make sure that even the mainstream media and academia and definitely the politicians are going to use them. The third thing we have to do is to accept the analyses, that change from within is not likely to happen and that brings forward the question of what kind of strategy do you adopt if you want to bring the change from outside. Luckily we have a very good example. Most people are now pushing the non violent strategy, instead of the violent strategy, for a change. This is good because I think a new reality that is going to be born out of the non violent struggle will create a much better relationship at the time of reconciliation. Whether as if you’ll win the liberation, if you want, through violence, we know from other historical cases, you become a violent society yourself. So I think there is a lot to be done, and the good thing about this age of ours is that there is a lot you can do as an individual, but never forget the organisations, and the old organisations as well, especially in the case of Palestinian representation. Not always you have to invent the wheel, sometimes you have to oil it, and make sure that it works again, as well as it did in the past.

*The full video of this interview is available here: http://vimeo.com/20754275

FRANK BARAT is coordinator of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine

“Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel’s War Against the Palestinians” a book by Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe (edited by FRANK BARAT) is out now.




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