Is Democracy a Factor in Solving the Palestinian–Israeli Conflict?

About 30 years ago, the authors of this article published a book titled Democracy, Peace, and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. The main thesis of the book was based on the historical observation that democratic states do not fight each other. We further assumed that following the Oslo agreement, signed in 1993 between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the Palestinians would achieve some kind of independence (with autonomy as a first step). Had this goal been achieved, we assumed that the two political entities, Israel, and Palestine, would coexist in peace as two democratic states. Unfortunately, this last assumption has not materialized, and Palestinians, although they aspire for an independent Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel, are still an occupied nation. Our vision when we wrote the above-mentioned book in 1994 was that since Israel is a democracy, and we believed Palestinian society was evolving into a democratic entity, we assumed that these two political entities would be able to manage their differences through a democratic process typical for two democratic countries.

The first question that comes to mind when discussing the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is: What went wrong? Why the Oslo Accords did not lead to the desired outcome of a two-state solution? And what should or could be done to change the current situation, which after more than 55 years of occupation is not anywhere close to a solution? 

Our aim in this article is to examine whether and to what extent democracy can be a factor in improving the current situation. 

Democracy is a powerful concept that has attracted a great deal of attention over the last 200 years, so much so that many countries in the world have adopted it and work very hard to protect and improve it. In fact, at the end of the 20th century, with the fall of the Soviet Union, South Africa’s apartheid regime, and the Berlin Wall, democracy was ascendant. Scholars and political scientists believed that democracy had overcome all other forms of regimes, and people viewed it as “shining city on the hill,” to cite the phrase used by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan in a different context, or as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said: “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.”

Jewish and Democratic

Israel was established as a liberal democracy and currently is ranked 23rd in the world by The Economist’s Democracy Index, higher even than the United States (ranked 26th). Since the current government took over six months ago, however, many questions have been raised about the stability of the democratic institutions in Israel. This is a result of the attempts to change the judicial system, limit the power of the Supreme Court and its monitoring of the laws legislated by the Knesset to guarantee that, in the absence of a constitution, these laws will not violate the basic universal principles of democracy and human rights. The so-called legal reform aims to push Israel towards being a more religious state guided by the Halacha (Jewish religious law), under the slogan of protecting its Jewishness. A prime concern is the question of how to find a balance between Israel as a democratic state and as a Jewish state. Can there be a state that is both theocratic and democratic at the same time? Can the United States declare itself a Christian and democratic state – a goal to which some indeed aspire? Does it sound right to refer to the “Islamic Republic of Iran” as the “Islamic Democratic Republic of Iran?” Does this not contradict the basic definition of “democracy?” A democracy is a system of government where the people hold power, either directly or through elected representatives. The key features of a democracy include free and fair elections, the rule of law, civil liberties, checks and balances, separation of powers, and political participation. Furthermore, democracy implies freedom of and from religion. No democracy is officially tied to religious authority (apart from England, where the queen/king is the head of the state as well as the head of the church. The queen/king in England is not a political leader, however; Parliament is).

This contradictory duality of the State of Israel has been under the surface for many years, but now, with the new ultra-right wing government, it is emerging as a major problem for Israel and for the Palestinians as well. Since this government took over six months ago, Israel has been facing one of the most serious crises in its history, but the Palestinians are suffering as well. Settler attacks against Palestinians have intensified under this government. Settler aggression against Palestinians has always been there, but it has intensified under this government because the settlers feel immunity. The goals of the settlers and the current government are identical: to further oppress the Palestinians and to deepen the political and geographic divisions in Palestinian society.

What is happening in Israel seems to be following a worldwide antidemocratic trend. In the past few years, there has been a growing assault on democracy, from demagogic policies in the U.S. to nationalistic victories in Europe to authoritarian regimes in Philippines, Turkey, and Venezuela. Yet, democracy is a precious commodity for international relations, as well as a tool for protecting human rights, equality, pluralism, justice, etc. Democratic countries solve their problems through negotiations and compromise. That is why no war has happened between the two democratic countries since countries began to adopt this form of regime about 200 years ago. Democracy, therefore, is not only suitable for preserving individual rights and civil liberties of citizens, but it has the international component of preventing wars and preserving peace among countries.

Demonstrators holding anti-occupation placards during a protest against the Israeli government's judicial overhaul bill, in Tel Aviv in May.Credit: AHMAD GHARABLI – AFP

Palestine as a Democracy

The situation in the Palestinian territories is worse than ever. To begin with, the Palestinians are divided politically and geographically, and they are almost powerless when facing the Israeli occupation machine. They have endured occupation for 56 years and see no light at the end of the tunnel. For them, the Nakba is ongoing, and what seemed possible after the Oslo Accords in 1993 is becoming more impossible with every passing day. Every new settlement is one more nail in the coffin of the two-state solution. The West Bank is inhabited by more than three million Palestinians. And building Jewish settlements in the occupied territories in violation of Geneva Fourth Convention and all relevant UN resolutions, is gradually making it impossible to reach a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. 

Yet, although Palestinians are under occupation and not a free nation, there are strong indications that once they obtain their independence, Palestine will become a full-fledged democracy. Many Palestinians believe that the democratic path is the right path to be followed to resolve internal and external conflicts and that their future entity must and will be democratic. Indeed, there exists a plurality of factors that might be the basis for optimism regarding a democratic evolution of Palestinian society:

The Palestinian Declaration of Independence (PDI): The content of the PDI - in many ways resembling Israel’s own text of 1948 - reflects a philosophical commitment to the development of democratic institutions. 
Negotiations and Compromise: For many years now, Palestinians have engaged in dialogue and heated debates among themselves concerning their political future. These debates have resulted in acceptance of the principles of negotiations and compromise, two cornerstones of democratic behavior. 
Education: The literacy rate among Palestinians is one of the highest in the world. Based on observation of the Western Hemisphere, where democracy has flourished, it is easy to conclude that education is a vital ingredient for building and maintaining democratic societies. 
Middle Class: History suggests that a strong middle class is an important prerequisite for the development of democracy. The professional and political leadership in the West Bank and Gaza Strip draws heavily for its membership on a broad middle class comprised of medical doctors, professors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, and skilled technicians of various types. These individuals are highly educated, and many of them have received their education abroad, particularly in Western universities and institutions.

These are only part of the components that characterize democratic societies in general, and they all are present in Palestinian society; however, there are other factors that have contributed to the formation of a democratic society in Palestine. Among the factors that contributed to the formation of a democratic society in Palestine, paradoxically, is the impact of the Israeli occupation. In fact, despite being an occupied entity, Palestinian society ranks 109th in the world index of democracies, higher than any other Arab country. Thus, Palestinian society is equipped to be a democratic state from day one of independence. 

Israel is by far the stronger side of this equation militarily, economically, scientifically, and internationally. It has the power to make the two-state solution happen; however, the question is: Does it have the will, indeed the ability, to do so? Given its internal politics, including the view that the Jews have the exclusive right over the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea; can Israel free itself from this occupation? Does it have the freedom to do so? Given this theocratic and nationalistic bent, can Israel overcome this political dilemma? 

The question is when and if Israel, the dominant power, will allow this to happen. Lack of democracy in the occupied territories is not the obstacle for implementing a two-state solution conducive to the creation of a democratic state, the State of Palestine. Israel has peace treaties with Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan, the UAE, and Bahrain, none of which is a democracy and all of which are ranked behind the Palestinians in the world democracy index.

Democracy is a powerful concept that plays a major role in international relations. However, democracy is neither the problem nor the solution in this case. Israel is a democracy, a liberal democracy, ethnic democracy, or a special type of democracy that tries to accommodate the internal politics and the biblical worldview of many Jews. Palestinian society is not a state; it is an occupied society seeking independence but has the elements to evolve into a democracy if given the opportunity. 

Impact of the Occupation

The occupation is not affecting the Palestinians alone; it is affecting Israeli society in a major way. One may even say that the occupation of Palestine is the occupation of Israel. The occupier has become the occupied, as it cannot get out of this situation. The current situation in Israel reflects this reality, and it might intensify if the occupation continues. Unfortunately, many Israelis do not see the strong link between the question of democracy and the judicial overhaul that is currently taking place in Israel and the occupation – indeed, the de facto annexation. In our view, the two issues are inexorable, impossible to separate. The late Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz predicted the dangers of occupation and annexation of the West Bank by Israel as early as 1968, one year after the occupation began. Calling the concept of the entire Land of Israel a monster, he said:

“It is not the territory that is the problem, but the population of approximately 1.25 million Arabs who live there (today the number is over 4.5 million) and upon whom we will have to impose our rule. 
“The inclusion of these Arabs (in addition to the 300,000 who are citizens of the state – (currently 1.8 million) in the sphere of our rule means - the elimination of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people, the destruction of the entire Jewish people, the collapse of the social structure that we have established in the country and the corruption of man – both the Jew and the Arab. 
“From the social point of view: in a short time, there will no longer be a Jewish worker or a Jewish farmer in that country. The Arabs will be the working people, and the Jews will be managers, supervisors, officials and policemen .The state that controls a hostile population of 1.4 million foreigners (currently over 5.5 million) will necessarily be a Shin Bet state, with all that entails as consequences for the spirit of education, for freedom of speech and thought, and for the democratic regime. 
“The typical corruption of any colonial regime will infect the State of Israel as well... There is a fear that the IDF – which until now was a people’s army – will degenerate by becoming a politicized army, and that its commanders who will be military governors will be like their counterparts in other nations.”1

The continued occupation of the West Bank is the result of a Jewish worldview that assumes Jewish supremacy everywhere in the Holy Land, a view that makes many Jews imagine that they will live in a pure Jewish democratic state, free of Palestinians. This worldview makes every Jew feel that opposing the settlements in the West Bank means opposing an essential element of the Jewish or Zionist state, and they are not ready to be considered non-Zionists. Given this dominant point of view among many Jews, elements of the current government, such as Itamar Ben-Gvir and Betzalel Smotrich, seem to represent Zionism much more than others precisely because they adhere more strictly to the biblical worldview of the Jewish people. This is the real dilemma in trying to reach the two-state solution.

Changing Attitudes Abroad

Israel is losing on the international front as well, including in the United States. This change of attitude toward Israel is reflected in a new poll conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland along with Ipsos. In an answer to the question “If a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians were not possible, meaning the West Bank and Gaza had to be under Israeli control indefinitely, which of the following would be closer to your view?” 73% of Americans — including 80% of Democrats and 64%of Republicans — would choose a democratic Israel that’s no longer Jewish over a Jewish state that does not confer full citizenship and equality to the many non-Jews under its authority. Polling also found that a majority of Jewish Americans supported conditioning military aid to Israel in certain circumstances.

A Future of Coexistence

Since the Oslo Accords, many efforts have been made to reach a solution acceptable to both sides. Yet nothing of significance has been achieved. Israel is still controlling the lives of more than 4.5 million Palestinians through a military occupation that many describe as apartheid. Therefore, new ways should and must be sought to solve this exceedingly difficult historical conflict. What is needed is a stronger desire on both sides, Israelis, and Palestinians, to intensify education for peace, democracy, and coexistence. There are some programs that already exist to serve this idea. One is the bilingual “Hand in Hand” secular, mixed, and integrated educational program from primary through secondary school. Another exceptional and unique experiment is the integrated Neve Shalom/Wahat as-Salam school. These programs have thus far had little or no impact on getting the two nations closer to achieving peace, however, and need to be supported and enhanced. 

Furthermore, the international community should be more aggressive in attempting to implement the two-state solution. We, Israelis, and Palestinians alike, are running out of time and options. The Palestinians are becoming more violent as they see no solution or any real help internationally or even from the Arab countries. The Israelis are losing as well, as can be seen from the rifts, ongoing demonstrations and strikes. Even reserve army units are expressing their rejection of the current Israeli Government’s political maneuvers. 

Finally, we must build future coexistence on firm foundations that consider that Israel is not the state of its Jewish citizens only, but of its Arab citizens too. It must be understood that there are citizens inside Israel who are not Jews, but who want to live in equality, security, and true peace. These citizens live in a dilemma best expressed by the late Tawfik Ziad, “my government is fighting my people.” They strongly believe that this dilemma must be solved in a satisfactory political way.

Majoritarian rule should not permit the discrimination of minorities. On the contrary, democracy is based on respect of the equal rights of the “other,” including all Palestinians under occupation. We should strive together toward a more consensual democracy. In an article by Nathan Sachs published by the Brookings Institution on Feb. 23, 2023, titled Israel’s Majoritarian Nightmare Should be a US Concern, Sachs writes that “the demos in ‘democracy’ are the people — all of them — not merely the majority. Republics are things of the public — all of it. Democratic rule requires a balance between the will of all people. This is never easy, and there is, by mathematical necessity, no perfect way to aggregate all preferences. Of course, democracies give, as they should, a right of way to the majority will. But a minority is part of the demos as well, no matter if it consists of 49.9 percent of the population or merely one individual. Unchecked, unbridled majoritarianism is nothing more than 
tyranny of the majority.” We share the view that majoritarian democracies are undemocratic.


1 Feb. 5, 2020