Giorgio Gomel

The occupation regime threatens Israeli democracy

Only the end of the 56-year occupation of the West Bank, the birth there of a Palestinian state in good neighborly relations with Israel and the partition negotiated with that state of the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean will ensure the existence of Israel as a democratic state with a Jewish majority. The future, however, with the expansion of settlements and the growing number of Jewish settlers in the Palestinian territories (about 700,000 of which over 200,000 in East Jerusalem alone) could imply a traumatic choice between an exclusively Jewish state with disenfranchised Palestinians, marked by a perennial inter-ethnic war between Arabs and Jews, and a binational state with equal rights for its citizens but in which democracy and demography will dictate a minority future for Jews.

The situation in the West Bank

In terms of relations with the Palestinians, the government agreements following the elections last November and the formation of a coalition in power between Netanyahu’s party, the religious parties and the chauvinist far right, explicitly limit the right of self-determination to Jews alone on the piece of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Israeli civil law will be extended to the West Bank which is equivalent to its annexation de jure or de facto, under the authority of the Minister of Finance Smotrich on matters of allocation of land, natural resources, infrastructure.

By virtue of a military regime of occupation such as the one in force since the 1993 Oslo Accords for Area C – about 60% of the surface of the West Bank itself, where almost 500,000 Israeli settlers and about 300,000 Palestinians live – international law requires the protection of the population living there, but if there is a civil power in that territory there is no juridical framework which prohibits the existence of two different and discriminating laws in the same territory, one for Jews, the other for Arabs. This happens in a context where the violence of militant formations of the Palestinian world and the action of repression of the Israeli army, especially in the northern cities of the West Bank – Jenin and Nablus – this year have produced victims and losses that have not occurred since the end of the second intifada in 2005.

The Oslo accords betrayed

It is a profound regression from the philosophy of the Oslo Accords of 30 years ago, whose foundation was the mutual recognition of rights: that of Israelis to peace and security as a mirror of that of Palestinians to a state worthy of the name. On the one hand, it is futile to rely on the mere military repression of violence without offering peace negotiations, rather exalting the will to build new houses in the colonies in the West Bank as a legitimate response to violence; in addition, allowing the return of settlers to some settlements evicted years ago, retroactively legalizing other illegal settlements and tolerating  settlers’ repeated violence against Palestinian localities and their inhabitants, which pushes them to abandon their lands and sources of livelihood. On the other hand, the illusion of bending Israel with violence, redeeming the impotence of the Palestinian National Authority weakened in its apparatuses and strongly delegitimized in its own public opinion also due to the continuous postponement of elections since 2006, should be clear.

Meanwhile, a profound schism crosses and tears apart Israeli society. Protests  of vast sectors of public opinion, previously “depoliticized” or indifferent to the anti-democratic degradation of the country, with forms of almost “conscientious objection” of academics, large sections of business, army reserve units. In Israel, where there is no constitution for complex reasons related to the birth of the country, the conflicting relationship between state and religion, and the tangle of its bumpy 75-year history, the only body authorized to evaluate the conformity of acts of government with the Basic Laws is the Supreme Court. The parties in power insist on changing their power by allowing a simple parliamentary majority to overturn any rulings they do not like.

From democratic state to Jewish state

Already in 2018, the Israeli Parliament had approved the controversial “law of the nation”, which effectively sanctioned the transition of Israel from a “Jewish and democratic state” – an oxymoron according to some; an attempt partially successful according to others to reconcile the “State of the Jews” conceived by the founding fathers of Zionism, i.e. a state where Jews could self-determine into a nation, with the principle of a democracy for all its citizens – to a “Jewish state”. The law violated the very spirit of the 1948 Declaration of Independence. With Israel defined by law as the “nation-state of the Jewish people,” the right to self-determination is limited to Jews. This means ignoring the fact that there is another nation or ethnic group in Israel which makes up one fifth of the country but which can say nothing about the character of the state of which its members – the Arabs – are equal citizens. Equal individual rights yes, but not the collective rights of a national minority, which should be able to achieve a status no less than that of Israeli Jews through legislative instruments and concrete acts.

With the new government formed after last November’s elections, in which the weight of the two ultra-Orthodox parties and the fundamentalists of “religious Zionism” is decisive, with strong impulses towards tribalism and intolerance, Israel will no longer be the “state of the Jews” even on a regulatory level, much less the “state of the Israelis”, a full and egalitarian democracy for all its citizens. It will become one “Jewish state”, under the pressure of a belligerent minority of the country. What are the most significant steps if the coalition agreements agreed between Likud and the other parties are fully implemented? They compulsively insist on Jewish identity of the country. Agencies part of ministries dedicated to this end are invented, in particular an Authority for Jewish identity and a program concerning relations between schools and civil society entrusted to a homophobic and fundamentalist party.

As many analysts observe, and as the broad public outcry points out, the ongoing judicial “revolution” is only a means the ultimate goal being the annexation of the territories and the full sovereignty of Israel over them.

Civil society unites the “two nations”

Amos Oz , the great Israeli writer, argued that in putting an end to the conflict gripping the two peoples, a political agreement that would resolve the essential points of friction  – borders between the two states, Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories, status of Jerusalem, refugees – should precede the process of human, cultural, anthropological reconciliation between the parties; indeed, it was an indispensable condition. The dilemma remains unresolved and still heavily marks that conflict. For a set of reasons, from the peace treaty signed in Oslo in 1993 to the subsequent negotiations at Camp David, Taba, Annapolis, up to the last attempt at diplomatic mediation conducted by the Obama Administration in 2014 –  interrupted by repeated outbreaks of terrorist violence and phases of warfare – that virtuous mechanism that would have led first to the formal peace agreement and then to solid and lasting coexistence has failed.

However, civil society in the two nations – Israel and Palestine – is active with a myriad of NGOs dedicated to breaking the separation and the growing radicalization especially of young people. They act in a variety of fields – educational, health, environmental, entrepreneurial, interreligious – with a common denominator: oppose the perception of “the other” as an enemy. Against the skepticism of many resigned to a conflict between enemies who appear irreducible, dominated by nationalist hysteria and the rejection of the reasons of the other, the commitment of these associations remains strong. Among these are the numerous Israeli-Palestinian NGOs, federated under the aegis of the Alliance for Middle East Peace which promoted a meeting in Jerusalem at the beginning of June. About 600 people heard speeches from active members of many of those NGOs, as well as academics, diplomats and experts in the field. A continuous, underground, often ignored, but precious work of civil society movements dedicated to coexistence.

Giorgio Gomel

About the Author
Giorgio Gomel is an Italian economist, formerly Chief International Economist at the Bank of Italy. He is one of the founders of JCall Europe - an association of European Jews committed to end the occupation and come to a 2-state solution. He currently also serves as president of Alliance for Middle East Peace Europe (
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