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Ian Joseph

Why Israel cannot be a democracy

“We are taking very sure and measured steps to a point where the State of Israel will not be a democracy or a home for the Jewish people.”—Ami Ayalon, Shin Bet Director 1996-2000

Israel cannot, and will not, be a democracy for the foreseeable future. If we want a Jewish state in the Middle East, one that aligns itself with the west, is an ally of the United States, then we should stop pretending it can be a democracy. The events of October 7, 2023 have conclusively proven that the Jewish state cannot coexist peacefully with the non Jews in its midst.

There are about 14 million Arabs and Jews living in the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. They are equally divided between Arab Muslims and Jews with a small percentage of non Jewish residents who side with Israel and a small percentage of Arab Christians. 

Both sides fear, distrust and loath one another. 

Both sides wish that the other would leave.  

Both sides have extremist elements who wish to use terror, mayhem, violence and force to be rid of the other. 

Both sides have legitimate claims to be there. 

Both sides seek to delegitimize the other. 

Both sides wage a world wide information war.

All told, Israel plus Gaza and the West Bank cover an area of about 10,600 square miles of land — 2½ times the area of Los Angeles County,  about 6% the size of California, about the size of Wales, about 12% the size of Japan,  about 60% the size of Denmark. In fact a small territory in which 14 million people live.

Israel, as we know it, has a GDP per capita, before the Israel-Hamas war, on a par with Canada, Belgium and Germany of about $53,000 a year. The Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza have a GDP per capita of about $4,000 a year, less than 10% of Israel’s.

Both sides are inexorably destined to share the same space, and cannot, without mass displacement and movement of existing populations be separated. Both sides have large percentages of their populations who would violently resist any attempts to relocate them in order to separate between the two populations.

In short, both the 7 million Arabs and the 7 million Jews are doomed/destined to live closely intermingled together for the foreseeable future.

A true democracy would give all 14 million of its residents equal political, civil and human rights. Such a democracy would be a binational state of all its citizens. Neither a Jewish state nor a Muslim state. 

For more than the last 120 years Zionist leaders have attempted to carve out a Jewish state, Israel, in what was, and still is known as Palestine by many. From the start Zionist leaders and writers recognized that the local Arab residents would resist a Jewish presence and an attempt to impose Jewish rule. Jabotinsky’s Iron Wall essay in 1923 wrote “There can be no voluntary agreement between ourselves and the Palestine Arabs. Not now, nor in the prospective future. I say this with such conviction, not because I want to hurt the moderate Zionists. I do not believe that they will be hurt. Except for those who were born blind, they realized long ago that it is utterly impossible to obtain the voluntary consent of the Palestine Arabs for converting “Palestine” from an Arab country into a country with a Jewish majority”. In 1956, Dayan in his well known Roi Rotenberg eulogy, stated “We will make our reckoning with ourselves today; we are a generation that settles the land and without the steel helmet and the canon’s maw, we will not be able to plant a tree and build a home. Let us not be deterred from seeing the loathing that is inflaming and filling the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Arabs who live around us. Let us not avert our eyes lest our arms weaken. This is the fate of our generation. This is our life’s choice – to be prepared and armed, strong and determined, lest the sword be stricken from our fist and our lives cut down.” In 1967, shortly after the Six Day War, the country’s founding father and first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, spoke on the radio. “Israel, he said, better rid itself of the territories and their Arab population as soon as possible,” “If it did not Israel would soon become an apartheid state.” As recently as August 2023 National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir told Israel’s version of Meet the Press  “My right, the right of my wife and my children to move around Judea and Samaria” — the biblical names for the West Bank — “is more important than freedom of movement for the Arabs,”  “My right to life comes before freedom of movement.”

On the other hand, the PLO charter, and the charters of multiple Palestinian Arab organizations including that of Hamas, all mention driving the Jews out and liberating all of Palestines lands by force of arms.

In summary, both sides recognize the lack of a foreseeable peaceful solution. Substantial numbers on both sides claim to be peaceful, but neither side trusts the other sufficiently to live together without force of arms.

In a true democracy, both sides would be willing to share power and lose or gain power at the ballot box. In a true peaceful democracy, at times a Jewish government would rule and at times an Arab government would rule. This is obviously impossible given the current circumstances. Hence the obvious statement, that Israel cannot and will not be a democracy for all in the foreseeable future. It may have some semblance of a democracy for Jews and a minority of Arabs, but will not, and cannot, include all the inhabitants of the area.

Tribalism prevails here. For democracy to work, both sides must accept deep and lasting compromises. Neither side is willing to compromise, give up power or recognize that neither side can have all it desires.

Israel cannot be Jewish, democratic and rule over the territory from the Jordan to the Mediterranean. Palestine cannot be Arab, democratic, Muslim and rule over the territory from the Jordan to the Mediterranean. There are simply too many of the “other” living closely together in a shared territory.

Israel is, for better or worse, destined to live by the sword for the foreseeable future, as it has done for the last 75 years. That is the reality of Israel and a reality one must accept if one wants to live in Israel, support Israel and see a Jewish state in the Middle East. The reality of living by the sword is that one must be prepared to die, if necessary, for Israel, one must be prepared to sacrifice one’s children, if necessary, for Israel, and one must be prepared to pay an ongoing price, in blood, lives and money, to maintain a Jewish state.

This is the reality that we all need to recognize and accept for the foreseeable future as the price of a Jewish state.

About the Author
Born and educated in South Africa, a graduate of Jewish day school and Habonm Dror, Ian Joseph served in the IDF as an officer in combat units, and currently resides in North Carolina and Cyprus. Ian holds an MBA from Shulich School of Business in Toronto, is certified as a Master Instructor by the American Sailing Association and is currently retired from IBM. Among other pursuits Ian edits a weekly newsletter of Israeli news items, teaches sailing around the world and certifies sailing instructors.
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