London’s buffoonish mayor, big-business standard-bearer Boris Johnson, was in Tel Aviv today, sucking up to the Israelis on a trade mission to encourage increased financial links between Tel Aviv and his city. Determined to put the interests of London’s wealthiest capitalists ahead of the rights of Palestinians, Johnson rolled out the usual trope that Israel is “the only democracy in the region, the only place that has in my view a pluralist open society”. As per usual, Israel’s wafer-thin claims to be a pluralist democracy have been lapped and up and repeated by UK media without question. But does this claim stand up?
Israel faces a dilemma when it comes to democracy; how can they maintain a system that appears democratic and that genuinely ensures a free vote for Israel’s prized Jewish citizens, but that prevents Israel’s Palestinian subjects from being able to secure any real power? Israel does this through a careful regimen of demographic control; ensuring the Arab demographic remains low as a percentage of the voting population. This is done through two crucial measures. The first is paradoxically denying that the Occupied Territories are part of Israel and therefore denying the millions of Palestinians there a right to vote, despite illegally moving Israeli citizens into this territory to increase their control over it in a colossal land grab unrivaled anywhere on earth. The second is maintaining highly discriminatory citizenship policies within Israel’s official borders that encourage the global Jewish diaspora to move to Israel with financial incentives, while effectively banning Arabs from immigrating, even attempting to force them out, and refusing the right of return for millions of Palestinians refugees, the victims of the nakba and their descendants.
That everyone ruled over by the government being elected must be permitted to vote seems like a ludicrously obvious point to make. However this fundamental tenet of democracy is something that supporters of Israel willfully disregard. There are 4.5 million Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories who have no right to vote, despite their country having been occupied for the past six decades, with Israel controlling virtually every aspect of their lives. For Israel to claim that Gaza or the West Bank are independent for the purposes of their democracy is farcical. The catastrophic humanitarian crisis they continue to enforce upon Gazans, a toxic political situation made worse by repeated, grossly disproportionate bombings of civilian targets. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority has questionable sovereignty of just a tiny fraction of this area, with the Oslo Accords granting full control to Israel over most of it. Military incursions that result in death are frequent. Land rights for Palestinians are slim to none, with building work all but outlawed for Palestinians in most of the West Bank. Palestinians have no say whatsoever in any of this.
Some would counter this argument by claiming that Palestinians have the right to elect their own government in the West Bank. This is disingenuous at best. The Palestinian Authority have little power to carry out the abilities of government, due to Israeli restrictions and policies; everything from water to building rights to electricity and border control is removed from their hands. Obviously, if the Israeli government truly intended for the Palestinians to have sovereignty over the land they would release the Palestinians from occupation but they clearly have no interest in doing this. Instead, they are systematically invading the West Bank, in violation of international law, building settlements throughout the territory in an attempt to permanently annex it. These settlers, living outside of the land allocated to Israel’s ‘democracy’ can vote in Israel’s elections. The Palestinians living in fear around them cannot. In apartheid segregated Hebron, Palestinians and Israelis living side-by-side are divided by their right to vote. In perhaps the sickest irony of all, the ballot papers for Israel’s recent election were made by Palestinians working in an illegal Israeli settlement who cannot vote, unlike their employers. If Israel refuses to accept the sovereignty of Palestinian lands, then they must allow Palestinians to participate in democracy. They cannot have it both ways.
Perhaps the most damning criticism of Israel’s supposed “pluralist democracy” is the special treatment afforded to Jewish citizens compared to their Arab counterparts. Arabs face discrimination in every aspect of their lives, from their inability to secure employment in many sectors due to not having served in the Israeli military to segregated living conditions and the threat of eviction from their homes. Israel maintains a large roster of laws that directly discriminate against its Palestinian citizens. But Israel can only maintain its so-called democracy if it ensures a substantial Jewish majority, to ensure the Arabs never gain any real power, especially considering the birth-rate among Palestinians is so much higher than that of their Jewish counterparts. To counteract this, the Israeli state operates a highly discriminatory immigration system, that pays Jews from any part of the world to settle in Israel, while simultaneously denying entry to any Arabs, even those who marry an Israeli citizen. Most sickeningly of all, it refuses to allow the right of return to the 5 million Palestinian refugees, descendants of the 750,000 Palestinians forcibly evicted from Israel during the 1948 ethnic cleansing.
Israel’s drive for racial purity doesn’t just extend to Palestinians; Israel also denies access to African migrants and refuses to take in refugees to protect its Jewish demographic makeup. In an even more blatant display of racism, the ‘Jewish’ credentials of some black Jews moving to Israel have been questioned by rabbis. In one particularly sickening scandal, the Israeli government admitted to having sterilised without their knowledge or consent thousands of Ethiopian women who had moved to Israel.
A pluralist democracy can only be considered as such if equal rights are afforded to all citizens, regardless of race or religion, and voting ensures equal access to the democratic process. Israel’s constitution pays lip service to these essential tenets, but its plethora of racist policies, discriminatory laws and purposefully segregated territories demonstrate beyond doubt that its democratic credentials are far from satisfying. It’s a shame that British politicians like Boris pay more attention to Israel’s money, and its well-oiled PR machine, than the facts. Until the international community pays more attention to the reality within Israeli-controlled borders, the occupation will roll-on unopposed, and human rights will continue to take a backseat to corporate greed.