by Izhak Schnell
Military control of large numbers of people who are denied basic human rights and the right for national self-determination cannot be aligned with democratic values. International law legitimizes such situations in occupied territories but only for a limited time and under strict regulations that do not allow putting the occupied people's interests at risk except for security reasons of both the occupiers and the occupied. Beyond the tension between occupation and democratic values, the long occupation leads to the infiltration of nondemocratic values and practices into Israel inside the Green Line.
We have identified five main processes of deterioration in Israeli democracy: first, intensive use of propaganda in order to adopt a blind and a narrow definition of national patriotism; second, the loss of consensus concerning the balance between the Jewish and the democratic characteristics of the state; third, a weakening of the authority of law; fourth, the involvement of the military in politics; and fifth, the undermining of the authority of the Supreme Court.
Blind and Narrow Definition of Identity
The Israeli case demonstrates the association between territory and identity. The occupation of the biblical land and the holy places after 1967 evoked a messianic spirit and feelings of reconnecting to our territorial roots. Gush Emunim and Rabbi Kook spearheaded the translation of this spirit to a political program of settlement and gradual annexation of the newly occupied territories. Many other political groups followed the line from the Liberal Party that, a few years prior to 1967, united with the right-wing party of Herut through the Ultra-Orthodox and even the activist factions of the Labor party (the Movement for Greater Israel). It must be admitted that these developments happened at a time when the leftist labor hegemony started to lose its dominance due to other reasons that are beyond the scope of this discussion. However, the “return to the biblical land” accelerated the fragmentation of the labor hegemony and helped to crystallize the new neo-Zionist elite along a national-religious definition of Israeli identity.
In its struggle for hegemony, the new elite increasingly applied propaganda techniques that played on the deep fears of the public in order to promote an uncritical and narrow definition of Israeli identity. From the use of maps, through the creation of an alternative archeology in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, to the introduction of educational programs, the one-sided historical “truth” of the neo-Zionist narrative infiltrated into the established Israeli discourse. Statements like those of Education Minister Naftali Bennet, who argued that Israeli children should be exposed only to our truth and not to the other side’s narratives, and former military generals like Uzi Dayan, who repeatedly say that they care about the interests of Israel and not the Palestinians, unlike the leftists who care for the interests of the Palestinians, helped establish a blind uncritical patriotism. Increasingly, the Bible was introduced as the ultimate justification to our attachment to the land and our identity as Jews and heavenly promise became the ultimate justification for our sole ownership of the land with disregard to the rights of Palestinians who have lived on the land for hundreds of years.
This uncritical patriotism was followed by a narrowing of the legitimized forms of belonging to the new neo-Zionist identity. The Palestinians were consistently dehumanized and even compared by some of the leaders to Nazis. Israeli Arabs were systematically excluded from the legitimate political scene. During the ’80s rightist parties de-legitimized the right of Arabs citizens of Israel to take part in decisions that concern the determination of the state borders. They were repeatedly accused of being a “Fifth Column.” In addition, several laws were legislated to delegitimize or exclude Israeli Arabs from the legitimate discourse: laws like the Nakba and the Muezzin (call to prayer) laws are examples of symbolic importance, but laws that prohibit family unification between Palestinians from the OPT and Palestinian citizens of Israel also have a practical impact on discrimination against Arabs in Israel.
The same methods of de-legitimization of the Jewish leftist segments of society were intensively used by the new neo-Zionist elite. Rightist leaders supported the definition of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as a traitor, which led to his assassination, and later the presentation of all leftists as traitors in Binyamin Netanyahu’s 2016 election campaign, in which he presented the leftists as supporters of ISIS. Lately, even the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff was accused of being a traitor due to his moral stance against the murder of a defenseless Palestinian guerilla fighter by the soldier Elor Azaria. The exclusion of Arabs and leftists from the legitimate discourse and the uncritical presentation of the only legitimate definition of Israeli identity on the foundation of the national religious ideology consolidated an Israeli identity that is alien to Arabs, progressive humanists and Western liberals, that creates a particularistic antagonizing identity that is associated only with part of the Israeli public.
Beyond the separation of groups to the extreme right and left from the national consensus, the occupation also erodes the identification of many in the center with the state. The vicious circle of violence between the occupier and the occupied only increases mistrust and dehumanization of the other. In such a milieu children grow up with a mistrust of foreigners, which may lead to hatred and racism. This mindset is amplified by the fortification of space by fences, walls and guards. Under such a regime the discourse of human rights developed in Western culture could not be adopted by Israelis who support the occupation, thus increasing Western countries’ criticism of Israel and the perception among right-wing Israelis of a nation under siege that, as a consequence, is allowed to use any and all means for its survival. This erosion in the moral justification of the state in the name of Judeo-Christian universal morality erodes the identification of many Israelis with the state, further weakening Israeli democracy. Decline in participation during the last elections are a symptom of this trend.
Loss of Consensus
The struggle for the consolidation of a neo-Zionist national identity is followed by radical positions that are adopted among the ideological sections of the settlers on the one hand, and among Arab intellectuals on the other. These groups question the definition of Israel as a Jewish and a democratic state based on a balance between the two aspects of national identity. On the one hand, groups of settlers refuse to accept state sovereignty, and on the other hand, Arab intellectuals increasingly argue that within the Jewish state Arabs have no chance to receive equal rights.
Rightist resistance was expressed by dozens of rabbis who questioned the legitimacy of governments to make decisions concerning a withdrawal from part of the Land of Israel. This attitude led several Rabbis to declare “Din Rodef” (“law of the pursuer”), one of the few provisions in religious Jewish law permitting extrajudicial killings, against Rabin, and dozens of rabbis to call upon soldiers to refuse a decision to dismantle illegal settlements. The refusal to accept the governments authority led to the establishment of more than a hundred settlements by the settlers, against Israeli law. No wonder, then, that hundreds of youngsters from the settlements have continued the illegal establishment of dozens of outposts on hills in the Occupied Territories. The emergence of Jewish terror against Palestinians under the slogan of “Tag Mechir” (Price Tag) was based on the argument that the settlers are forced to take the law in their own hands due to the state’s failure to enforce law and order.
Up until 1967 Palestinians were cut off from one another, with their leadership controlled by Arab countries. The 1967 War brought Palestinians from Jordan, Egypt and Israel under one political unit, channeling them to the Israeli labor market. This new situation boosted Palestinians’ identification with their national identity. Antagonism between the Palestinians in the OPT and the neo-Zionist Israeli elite also created stress in the relations between Arabs and Jews inside Israel. On the one hand, many Israelis refused to distinguish between the Palestinians revolting in the OPT and the Arab citizens of Israel, who committed themselves to the use of democratic means in their struggle for the establishment of a Palestinian state and equal right for themselves. On the other hand, Arab intellectuals increasingly lost hope for achieving full rights and equality under the Zionist political order. Documents published by groups of intellectuals during the early years of the 21st century called for a change in the definition of the state from a Jewish one to a state for all its citizens. This call has been supported also by extreme leftist groups that resent the growing racism promoted by many politicians in the neo-Zionist parties.
Weakening of the Authority of Law
The lasting occupation creates stress that leads to restrictions on the democratic system itself. The existence of a large population of non-citizens who are denied power and who are in opposition to the expansionist goals of the neo-Zionist coalition in Israel pushed the right-wing nationalist religious groups to disregard the Israeli laws, thus eroding the authority of elected governments and the Knesset’s sovereignty. From the very beginning of the occupation, governments bowed to pressure from Gush Emunim settlers to legitimize unauthorized settlements.
The Karp Report, prepared by Deputy Attorney-General Yehudit Karp in 1984, pointed to a mass breaking of Israeli law by settlers, violence against Palestinians that was not investigated by the police and refusal of settlers to cooperate with the police. The Sasson Report, prepared by State Prosecutor Talia Sasson in 2005, points to more than 100 settlements and outposts that were founded in violation of Israeli law, not to mention international law.
More recently, officials have admitted that about 4,000 dwellings have been built on Palestinians’ private lands. In many cases public funding was transferred to the settlement department of the Jewish National Fund, which invested it in settlements without any public supervision. Prof. Yaron Ezrahi concluded that the occupation had created a culture of disregard for the law and legitimization of settlers’ use of violence against Palestinians.
It is difficult to demonstrate the permeation of disregard for the law across the Green Line, but two events clearly stand out: the 2001 demonstrations that led to the killing of 13 Arab citizens of Israel and one policeman and the case of the Bedouin village of Um Chiran in 2017. In both cases the police used harsh methods established as norms in the OPT to disperse demonstrations by Arab citizens of Israel. The case of Um Chiran stands out even more clearly once it is compared to the behavior of the police in evacuating Jewish settlers from the unauthorized settlement of Amona.
The culture of disregard for law has also permeated into the Knesset, where unconstitutional laws have been passed to legalize collective acts of disobedience. In many cases this was done with implicit or explicit governmental support, as was demonstrated in the case of the 2017 “Land Regulation” resolution, which was intended to legalize the 4,000 buildings built on Palestinians’ private lands. The Knesset also violated the basic principle of the freedom of speech by silencing opposition voices. The law against donations to leftist NGOs from European governments, while rightist NGOs benefit from donations from state institutions and international organizations, is one example. Additional examples include laws prohibiting the mention of the Nakba at official events and the entrance into Israel of supporters of the BDS movement (boycott, divest, sanctions).
The Struggle Against the Supreme Court
Over the years the Supreme Court has tried to avoid any decision concerning the legitimacy of the settlements on public lands, giving the military administration in the OPT broad flexibility in making such declarations. However, the Supreme Court has declared since the 1970s that expropriation of private lands for settlements can be justified only under security claims and only temporarily. The decision was in response to state claims in court that the expropriation of lands for settlements was needed for security reasons. Even in the decision about the separation wall, the Supreme Court decided that proportionality between Israel’s security considerations and minimization of damage to Palestinians had to be maintained in considering the location of the wall. In doing so, the Supreme Court rescued Israel from being taken to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Despite this, the Supreme Court has been repeatedly blamed for hindering the settlement movement and the creeping annexation of the OPT.
In response, the neo-Zionist coalition makes any attempt to change the personal composition of the members of the Supreme Court, nominating right-wing and less activist judges, who will not interfere in matters that they perceive to be political. At one point Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked changed the rules for selecting the president of the Supreme Court in order to elect Judge Asher Grunis, perceived by them as a rightist who would be friendly to the causes of the settlers, an expectation that he did not fulfill. During the latest nomination of Supreme Court judges, in 2017, three of the four selected judges were known for their right-wing political attitudes, and some of them were even settlers. During the process, the minister of justice threatened to change the rules of the selection process if her preference for rightist judges was not accepted.
Parallel to the efforts to change the composition of the Supreme Court, leaders including the current minister of justice and several coalition members have repeatedly attacked the Supreme Court, blaming it mainly for intervening in matters that concern the settlements. Such matters are considered by them to be political and not subject to judicial intervention. For example, Bennet, head of the right-wing Jewish Home Party, said that “the Bible takes precedence” over the Supreme Court. His party colleague Shaked said that “the legal system has assumed authority not granted it by law,” and “I will determine how the Supreme Court will look.” Meanwhile, their party colleague MK Motti Yogev called for “bulldozers to be used against the Supreme Court,” which has ruled in favor of the evacuation of the Amona settlement.
The Involvement of the Military in Politics
The occupation has affected the military in three ways: First, preoccupied with controlling civilians in the OPT, the military failed to prepare itself adequately to defend the country from external enemies; second, it was called to serve political goals of the neo-Zionist elite; and third, it was pushed to serve the settlers’ interest even when it involved breaking the law.
First, the military was forced to revise its strategies for the defense of Israel due to the new borders and the new geopolitics of the region after the 1967 War. Given the lack of clear policies from the government and the civil leadership, the military was forced to penetrate into the realm of the civilian leadership and to do it under ambiguous circumstances. Due to the intensification of the battle against the Palestinian resistance and the feeling that risks to the national security from outside Israel were negligible, the military neglected the strategic aspects, which led to the crisis of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the low achievements in the battles against Hizbollah and Hamas in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
Instead, the military became intensively involved in the managing of the civil lives of the Palestinians and in defending the settlers from the Palestinian uprisings. The most extreme example is the case of jurisdictionally justifying the settlements. Immediately after the 1967 War, when it became clear that settlements of civilians contravened international law, the military was called upon to plan semi-military (Nachal) outposts, despite the fact that it was clear that they were intended to become civilian settlements in the future. Later on, officers of the highest ranks repeatedly were called to testify before the Supreme Court that the settlements and the expropriation of Palestinian lands were necessary for security reasons. These steps were taken with the support, or at least the willful blindness, of successive Israeli governments. These steps mean that the military was called upon time after time to lie to the Supreme Court in order to legitimize the settlements in contravention of international and Israeli law.
Finally, the military increasingly came under the control of the settlers. In their need to defend the settlers, the military closed its eyes to law-breaking by settlers who tortured Palestinians. In addition, officers who served in the OPT learned that the settler leadership, who are close to the neo-Zionist elite, influence their prospects for career promotion. In response, many military officers avoided taking any decision or action that did not serve the political interests of the settlers. Gradually, settlers were channeled to the military units that were in charge of the daily security of the populations in the OPTerritories. These soldiers came to form a settlers’ militia organized, managed and supplied by the military but serving, at least in part, the settlers.
The five impacts of the occupation on Israeli democracy can be encapsulated in three main trends in Israeli society: first, a revision of the way Israeli society identifies itself within the equation of Jewish and democratic state. Increasingly, a narrow and blind form of neo-Zionist patriotism has antagonized and excluded Palestinians in Israel and in the OPT, as well as leftist Jews who criticize the neo-Zionist identity, from those groupings considered legitimate. This process involves deterioration of democratic values and practices. The neo-Zionist elite is taking a wide range of steps to limit freedom of speech and to undermine any democratic opposition to their new neo-Zionist ideology. Second, the occupation has led to the development of a culture of law-breaking and the permeation of the military into political debates in Israeli society. Law-breaking practices were implemented by the military, the Knesset and governmental and semigovernmental institutions, as the Karp and Sasson reports specify. Third, the occupation has eroded the ability of many Israelis to identify with the state. At the extreme ends of the spectrum, Arab intellectuals on the one hand and nationalist religious groups on the other have increasingly called for changing the status of the state from “Jewish and democratic” to either democratic for its all citizens or only Jewish, respectively. In the middle, the occupation has raised doubts among liberals concerning the moral justice of the state.