Israel is entering 2018 at odds with itself. Nothing better conveys how much it is enmeshed in its own contradictions than three recent pictures that symbolize the outgoing year. The first: thousands of demonstrators gather for what has become a weekly protest against the deep corruption that has come to debase Israel’s democratic order. The second: more than 3,000 members of the Likud central committee convene to vote on a resolution urging annexation of the West Bank. And the third: Ahed Tamimi, a blonde Palestinian teenager, is arraigned for standing up to Israeli soldiers and resisting, in her own way, the ongoing occupation, repression and subjugation of her people.
Can Israel continue to lay claim to being democratic while ruling against another people against their will? Can calls for good government through the exercise of democratic freedoms consistently ignore this question? Indeed, can democracies sustain themselves over time while carrying out policies that are, by any measure, antithetical to human dignity and to basic civil rights? The simple and simultaneously profound answer is no.
Yet for far too long, Israelis on all sides of the political spectrum have chosen to ignore these questions, denying their interconnection and systematically rationalizing their avoidance. There has always been something more pressing, more immediate, or seemingly more important.
Compartmentalization between domestic woes and security considerations, regional threats and global concerns, human empathy and palpable fear, has fast become a convenient coping mechanism to circumvent addressing these critical issues. Now, however, it is becoming increasingly evident that this patchwork blanket cannot cover the bundle of inconsistencies that is contemporary Israel. The growing realization that by trying to have everything, one may be left with nothing may yet compel Israelis in 2018 to undergo the all-so-necessary, admittedly painful and absolutely essential task of reexamining the various strands of their existence – jettisoning some and promoting others – in order to ensure a modicum of equilibrium in the years ahead.
When Benjamin Netanyahu returned to the prime minister’s office in 2009, he brought with him his reluctance to entertain any serious negotiations with the Palestinians. He began to curtail domestic criticism – first emanating from Israel’s own Palestinian minority and from civil and human rights organizations – under the guise of combatting “enemies from within”. Following these initial stabs at what was already a partly coopted opposition, he subsequently proceeded to hem in freedom of expression and association, accompanying these actions with a more systematic hounding of those who dared express their dissent with regularity. Netanyahu then moved on to query the judgment of the judiciary and to attempt to undermine its independence. After investigations into his possible malfeasance in office commenced in 2016, he went on to challenge the rules of the game and disrupt institutional checks and balances, using his coalition’s parliamentary majority to ram through legislation which further thrust Israel into a severe democratic recession.
Israel is consciously divesting itself of its substantive democracy, favoring a formal construct which equates democratic life with majority rule. To buttress this hegemonic view, special overtures have been made to the ultra-orthodox (freezing the compromise with liberal streams of Judaism on mixed prayer at the Western Wall; bowing to the orthodox monopoly on conversions; and promoting legislation expanding religious coercion at the local level), to the ultra-right (increased investment in settlements; special allocations for security beyond the Green Line; and, most tellingly, adoption of divine explanations for Israel’s claims to complete control over the entire land of Israel) and to low-income groups which constitute the bulk of Likud supporters (tax cuts, price reductions, promises of cheaper housing). There is clearly a direct correlation between the extent of unease with the present government’s comportment and the scope of restraints on Israel’s already fragile democracy.
The fact that no progress has been recorded on the Palestinian front during this time period is therefore hardly a coincidence. The constriction of democratic impulses has made it easier for successively more right-wing governments to avert any binding accord with the Palestinians. Indeed, in the past year alone – with the heavy tailwind of the Trump presidency – the present Netanyahu government has proceeded to entrench Israel’s presence in the heart of the Palestinian territories. During the past month, the pace has stepped up remarkably: the American recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has given new impetus to increased allocations to settlements and witnessed revived efforts by the Prime Minister to gain support from leading ultra-nationalist rabbis.
The culmination is the Likud’s ratification on the eve of the new year of a blatantly annexationist resolution: “Fifty years after the liberation of Judea and Samaria – including Jerusalem, our eternal capital – the central committee of the Likud calls on its elected representatives to advance free construction and to extend Israeli law and sovereignty to all the areas of settlement in Judea and Samaria.” This move, studiously avoided by every single Likud leader to date, apparently sounds the death knell to the two-state solution. It also flies in the face of Israel’s own founding principles. It is as if not only Israel’s survival, but also its character, has become dependent on its ability to contain the Palestinians rather than on pursuing its vision of providing a homeland for the Jewish people and ensuring equality, prosperity and justice for all its citizens.
Nothing better demonstrates the firewall that Israelis have created between their quest for domestic probity and Israeli actions towards the Palestinians than the dramatic footage of Ahed Tamimi slapping a (justifiably) non-responsive Israeli officer in her backyard shortly after her cousin had been shot during protests against the occupation. Israeli reactions initially focused on the conduct of the officer and the soldier who accompanied him: the amount of words devoted to his decision to avoid any further confrontation with teenage girls totally misses the point.
Tamimi and her friends have come, virtually overnight, to personify the inevitability of resistance to Israeli overrule. Several Israelis were truly shaken by the sight of the graphic picture of the latest iteration of Israeli occupation: they have expressed both guilt and shame. Most, however, have studiously avoided seeing in Ahed Tamimi anything other than a troublemaker and even a potential (to be sure, young and blue-eyed) terrorist bent on defying not only Israeli control over Palestinian life, but Israel itself. It is easier to catalogue her in this way than to confront the increasingly uncomfortable ramifications of the ongoing Israeli presence in the Palestinian territories. In fact, by not coming to terms with Ahed Tamimi and her cohorts, they believe they can avoid confronting themselves.
Israelis today have no such luxury. No country can lay claim to being democratic if it systematically denies basic political rights to a large portion of its residents. Since 1967 it has been obvious that to remain a democracy Israelis must decide between recognizing the right to self-determination of the Palestinians in a state of their own alongside Israel or granting all Palestinians the right to vote and be represented within its borders.
The upcoming year will force Israelis to choose. Either they can stand by and watch their country devolve into an occupying autocracy or they can reaffirm their commitment to building a full-fledged democracy for all citizens. Israel’s survival relies on their ability to shed current delusions and realize that they can no longer juggle so many contradictions without suffering their consequences.