The Death of Democracy in Israel: One-Third Cannot Vote; Support for Democratic Norms in Decline

By Gordon, Neve | National Catholic Reporter, February 13, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Death of Democracy in Israel: One-Third Cannot Vote; Support for Democratic Norms in Decline


Gordon, Neve, National Catholic Reporter


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: 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 dictators, 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 populace does not enjoy a series of basic rights that 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--7 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 6 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, which, like most other think tanks in Israel and abroad, conceives of Israel in the de jure sense, ignoring the de facto situation. …

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