Nadim Rouhana
Bitterlemons (Opinion)
December 1, 2011 - 1:00am

The spate of anti-democratic bills recently introduced by the Israeli government has forced the issue onto the public agenda in Israel. This is so not because anti-democratic bills are new, but mainly because for the first time some of the proposed bills threaten democracy for Jewish citizens themselves. For example, proposals to limit foreign funding to local non-governmental organizations, changes in nomination procedures for Supreme Court justices, and the recent proposed amendment to the libel law (which the left views as anti-free speech legislation) have placed the anti-democratic trends at the forefront of the public's consciousness.

It is vital that these current anti-democratic bills enter the public discourse. But if, even after the resistance we are witnessing from the diminished Israeli left, these bills are passed, an anti-democratic threshold will be publicly and undeniably crossed in Israel.

It is also important to place these bills in the context of anti-Arab laws that have been introduced all along, but explicitly and extensively since the 2000 "October events" (when Palestinian citizens staged mass demonstrations against the killing of Palestinians in the occupied territories at the start of the second intifada). These new laws will reduce already-limited avenues for Arab political participation within the Israeli system: parliamentary elections, NGOs' active participation in political life, and resorting to Israel's legal system, particularly the High Court of Justice.

As to parliamentary participation, some Arab elites are having second thoughts about the value of such participation altogether, because Arab members of Knesset have very little to show their constituencies in a system in which the tyranny of the ethnic majority limits the scope and potential of political achievements. In the last elections, Arab voting decreased to a historic low of just above 50 percent. The steady decline is expected to continue and the voices that call for election boycott will gather force. Whether the government succeeds in disqualifying some Arab parties (because their platforms call for Israel to be "a state of all its citizens", not a Jewish state), or a majority of Arab citizens actively boycott the elections, the effect is similar: Israel's claim to be a democracy will be seriously damaged.

As to NGO activity, it is true that some civil society organizations are funded by European and American foundations. These organizations, all working under the watchful eyes of the Israel Ministry of the Interior, compensate somewhat for the imposed ineffectiveness of the Arab political parties. But the foreign sources of funding raise many eyebrows within the Arab community itself as to the strings that come with funding, the representativeness of such organizations, and the mandate of their activities in the name of the community. Hitting these organizations will further shrink the space allowed for political activity within the Israeli system.

As for the third area of political participation, the resort to the legal system, it is clear that some of the leading organizations working in this area are doing outstanding work. But the value of their work is also being questioned by the community, as many of their legal achievements are of limited actual value because the overall political system makes sure to neuter them either by blocking the implementation of High Court rulings or by introducing new legislation that renders the rulings irrelevant. Some are worried that the resort to the legal system is only helping Israel's claim to democracy in return for effectively very limited results.

It is imprudent to expect that Palestinian citizens--a highly politicized indigenous national group of about one million and a half citizens and about 20 percent of the population of Israel--will just cease to seek equality and dignity because Israel sets limits on their diverse forms of political participation or keeps legislating that it is not their state but rather the state of the Jewish people. By doing so, Israel perhaps hopes to get an acquiescent group that will accept collective inferiority in its own homeland. Why Israel believes this is possible merits further study. For now, it is important to see the options that will remain open to Arab citizens once these new laws pass, and the consequent implications for Israel.

The deadlocked struggle for equal citizenship will become inextricably connected with the other deadlocked causes of the Palestinians: ending Israel's colonial rule, statehood, and achieving the return of the Palestinian refugees. There is an increasing awareness among all Palestinian groups that the major obstacle to peaceful and equal relations between Israeli Jews and Palestinians is the very project of an exclusive Jewish state that Israel is seeking to legislate and obtain Palestinian recognition of.

Historically, Arab citizens' acceptance of parliamentary participation immediately after Israel was established helped legitimize Israel on the world stage as an apparently democratic state. The historical circumstances of this implicit deal in which Arab citizens participate in elections in return for being able to escape the fate of other Palestinians--ethnic cleansing--are still silently in force. If the possibilities of even shallow and questionable forms of political participation are now diminished, the foundations of this implicit deal will change and both sides will be seeking new terms.

The implications for the appearance of democracy in Israel are far-reaching, and the doors of other forms of political participation for Palestinian citizens, such as civil disobedience, will start to be opened. Furthermore, those groups that seek to redefine the conflict as no longer being one for two nation states but rather a struggle for human rights, equality, and dignity for all in a single democratic state will be strengthened.


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