Israelis went to the polls yesterday (Feb. 10), but despite this manifestation of democratic health, Israel is far from being a full democracy, and this last election campaign only exposed some of the contradictions, and deeply racist paradigms, on which the state has been established.
The likely big winner of this election will be Avigdor Lieberman, and his ethno-centric party Yisrael Beiteinu, which in early results has won 12 per cent of the votes (15 of the 120 seats in the Knesset).
Israel is run by a parliamentary system that is comprised of a couple dozen small parties, some fifteen of which are expected to win seats in the next Knesset. Real but incomplete results show that either the centrist party Kadima (28 seats) or the right-wing Likkud (27 seats) will be assigned the role of building a coalition government.
It is clear that Lieberman -- once a member of the racist outlawed KACH party of the 1980s, now presenting a similar and overtly racist platform -- will be a member of whatever government may be formed. At his side he has mainstream politicians such as Uzi Landau, a former ambassador to the U.S., Danny Ayalon, and the chief commander of the border police, Yitzhak Aharonovitch.
Lieberman sees Israel's Palestinian citizens as enemies, and he calls to revoke their citizenship if they do not pass a fascist loyalty test to the state. He outwardly calls for the expulsion of Palestinians from the occupied territories, and openly suggested that a Palestinian MP be treated like Hamas was treated in the recent Gaza carnage. Lieberman, himself a settler, was convicted (by a plea bargain) for attacking a young child. Lieberman called an Israeli peace activist a "Kapo," thus labelling them a traitor.
Extreme as it may seem, this racist ideology is not so far from the centre of Israeli politics, and Nir Bar'am in the daily Ha'aretz claims that Lieberman is attractive to the voters because he clearly enunciates what the other leaders only mumble.
Indeed, one of the low points of this election campaign was a decision by the Central Elections Committee to ban the Arab parties from running in the elections. This shameful decision was reversed by a Supreme Court Appeal, but is indicative of the undercurrents of the Israeli political atmosphere. Ehud Barak, the leader of the Labour Party, and a former chief of staff of the IDF, campaigned against Lieberman by bragging: "I do not know how many times, if ever, he held a gun and shot someone." Barak would also not commit to establishing a government without Yisrael Beiteinu.
Barak is not alone either. Israel was established as a Jewish-democracy, and was never called to task on the contradiction in this concept. Some 20 per cent of Israel's 7.2 million citizens are Palestinians (Christians and Muslims). However, they are not entitled to the same full rights as the Jewish citizens: they cannot buy or own land anywhere, they cannot rent apartments wherever they want, and if they marry another Arab, their spouse will not get citizenship (and recently, even residency status was revoked, this time, sadly, with the seal of approval from the Supreme Court).
Another 15 per cent of Israel's citizens are recent immigrants from the former USSR, entitled to move to Israel by the Law of Return, a law allowing any Jew to become a citizen of Israel instantaneously. Ironically, significant number of those immigrants (some 30 per cent) are not Jewish either, but are related to Jews through marriage. The double standard with regards to citizenship extends to other areas of life such as education, health, infrastructure and economic opportunities, all leaving the Palestinian citizens among the poorest in the country. (This account does not count the 3.5 million occupied Palestinians, who are much poorer and without basic civic and human rights.)
Simply put, Israel never functioned as a state of all its citizens, but in this election people seem to be voting overtly and openly for a racist platform. Israel is an ethno-centric state, and politicians and intellectuals from the mainstream have always fanned the flames of fear of annihilation, the reliance on the tragic history of Jewish victimhood, and the dread of political and personal assimilation in the Middle East. Despite being the main aggressor in the region for decades, Israelis find it hard to imagine they could live peacefully in the region, and are routinely sold the "it's us or them" binary defensive doctrine.
And yet, most Israeli Jews will find it utterly offensive -- even surprising -- to be called a racist state. The Israel Democracy Institute reports that only 15 per cent of Israelis have trust in the current political parties. Perhaps if this mistrust is extended to ask crucial questions about the civic nature of the state and its laws, Israel will move towards being a true democracy, after which other conceptual doors to cooperative and just life in the region will be opened.
Until then, the burden is on us, in the international community, to call a spade a spade, and to criticize, not celebrate, the elections in the not-so-democratic state of Israel.
Dorit Naaman is a dual citizen of Israel and Canada. She is the Alliance Atlantis Professor of Film and Media at Queen's University.
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