Israel’s election: not exactly “a democratic choice”

By Taylor Brandon via Unsplash

Israel seems set to establish a government led by Benjamin Netanyahu and heavily dependent on the country’s far right. The motley crew of ex-cons, defendants, extremists and fundamentalists will claim to represent the democratic will of the people. But alas, the election in Israel was not exactly democratic.

The new coalition is primed to not just deepen the occupation of the West Bank but also enact a raft of authoritarian policies including an “override clause” enabling parliament to cancel Supreme Court by a simple majority, ending judicial oversight. As the court is the main local body protecting the stateless Palestinians, no one should be shocked at a third “Intifada” uprising. Indeed, a deadly attack on settlers accompanied this week’s inauguration of the new, nationalist-dominated parliament.

The head of the far-right Religious Zionism party is demanding to be defense minister: that’s Betzalel Smotrich, who favors lax shoot-to-kill orders and dominance of religious law, calls himself a proud homophobe, and has lamented his wife being forced to give birth in the same ward as Arabs. His ally Itamar Ben-Gvir, aiming to be the minister in charge of police, boasts of his over 50 indictments (some terror-related) and brandishes a gun in parking lots. They plan policies to provoke the one-fifth of Israeli citizens who are Arabs.

The next largest party, the ultra-Orthodox Shas, is led by Aryeh Deri, a convicted embezzler who is again in legal trouble. He and another religious party seek heightened subsidies for adult men to study religion all their lives instead of work, as well as religious reforms that will offend most U.S. Jews. Since the ultra-religious sector has about seven children per family and mostly refuses a secular education to them employable, without reforms Israel faces economic certain ruin.

Netanyahu himself is on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Most Israelis think the override clause is designed to overturn a conviction, which many of his supporters, brainwashed into hating the “deep state” as in the US, don’t mind.

But about half of Israel is apoplectic over the coming democratic downgrade and rupture with the world. Almost three-quarters of the top three income deciles — who pay almost all the taxes — supported the outgoing liberal government. Many now speak of emigration and modern Israel’s national suicide — which is so frustrating when compared to the extraordinary successes of contemporary “Start Up Nation.”

These people — along with horrified observers worldwide — are told to relax and respect a supposedly democratic choice. But that characterization has problems.

First, purely by the numbers, the opposition to Netanyahu emerged with a tie; it squandered over 6% of the overall vote by splintering, which left two parties just under the threshold needed to get into parliament. The side that wins this way might show humility rather than court war, raid the cookie jar and turn the country into a Jewish version of the fake-democracies in Hungary and Turkey.

Second, it is poor form to deploy the majoritarian aspects of democracy to enact illiberal legislation antithetical to the system’s deeper values.

Mainly though, the election was not very democratic because almost a third of the population governed in effect by Israel does not have citizenship and so lacks the right to vote: over 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank (and east Jerusalem).

Because of the West Bank occupation, Israel’s claims of democracy hang by a thread: the notion that the West Bank is not, in fact, in Israel — so that what happens there shouldn’t define the country. I’m sad to report this is a scam.

Israel has controlled the West Bank for 55 years and shows no sign of letting go. Netanyahu says Israel must always retain “security control” (and there is an argument for that). Moreover, Israel has built towns (plus a university) for Jews all over the territory — the so-called settlements. It controls the natural resources, construction rights on most of the area, overall security and justice, the currency and energy grid, and entry and exit.

Simply put, Israel has not annexed the West Bank to avoid having to extend citizenship to the Palestinians.

Most of them live in disconnected islands of “autonomy” under the Palestinian Authority set up in the 1990s (whose formation the right stridently opposed). But the PA is basically a bunch of territorially disconnected municipalities under the umbrella of a pretend president, Mahmoud Abbas. Israeli troops enter and leave these “autonomous zones” at will, conducting security operations and arresting whomever they please. Israeli checkpoints rule the areas between the zones.

Given this landscape, it’s impossible to dispute that the Palestinians have no say in their effective governing body. In theory they can vote in Palestinian elections — but beyond the PA’s subservience to Israel, no election has been held there since 2006.

Meanwhile, a half-million Israelis live in settlements that dot the area, in many cases right across the road from their rights-deprived neighbors. They have full protection of Israeli law, are funded by Israel and guarded by its army. With the exception of the autonomy zones they go wherever they please, with modern roads connecting them like umbilical cords to the motherland of Israel proper.

Unlike the Palestinians, they most certainly do vote. And it is telling to examine how that might be — because Israel has no absentee balloting for its citizens abroad. Bureaucratic sleights-of-hand fix this for the settlers. So enshrined is the arrangement that no one even notices — perhaps because deep inside they understand: Israel is merely pretending to have not annexed the West Bank in order to maintain the narrative of a democracy.

The truth was actually reflected in the Palestinians’ successful gambit at the United Nations in recent days. To the predictable howls from Israel, the UN voted to seek an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the legality of the West Bank occupation. The Palestinians argue that the occupation it is de-facto annexation and should be treated as such — and declared illegal.

Israel’s center-left knows all this is wrong, and seeks partition. Netanyahu’s Likud party, the mainstream right, sort-of knows it as well. It would follow the leader.

It may not happen immediately, but perhaps a few months down the road: Netanyahu could abandon the far-right and tempt his centrist rivals to join him in a national salvation government that flips the narrative — perhaps offering the Palestinians the Trump plan for statehood on 70% of the West Bank. Netanyahu himself accepted that a few years ago — but it was not enough for the Palestinians. It might look more tempting now, with Armageddon around the corner.

(This article appeared originally in Newsweek)

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Dan Perry

Journalist and comms professional who led the Associated Press in the Middle East, Africa, Europe & Caribbean. Author of Israel & the Quest for Permanence.