An Israeli election last week banned 60% of rightful voters and offered no alternative to electing a mass-murderous war criminal. Of 120 parliamentary seats, not a single one went to a party advocating the one-democratic-state (ODS) solution backed by 20% of Israeli Jews and as many as 70% of Palestinians. If a party had advocated this solution, it would risk being banned under Israel’s 1958 Basic Law: The Knesset.
Although the corporate media praises the “democratic” election, and even parts of the alternative Left media celebrate the results, it is clearly wrong to call the election democratic. More accurately, it was an ethnocracy- and apartheid-perpetuating sham.
For an election to be considered even minimally democratic, meaning that it promotes government by the people, we should expect a few indications. First, we should expect that governed adults generally have the right to vote. Second, we should look for a real choice between substantially different parties. Third, we should anticipate that a reasonably popular policy such as ODS would be advocated by at least some of the candidates. The recent election fails on all three counts.
“Israel’s Democracy Is Doing Just Fine”
At the time of this writing, the political parties are still negotiating to form a governing coalition with at least 61 seats. The centrist Blue and White has 33 seats, and the right-wing Likud has 31. The Joint List is in third place with 13 seats, followed by various smaller right-wing parties. It seems fairly likely that Prime Minister Netanyahu will be replaced by the former military chief Benny Gantz. Far from being a humane alternative to Netanyahu, Gantz spent his campaign bragging about his leadership role in the 2014 Gaza massacre that killed 550 Palestinian children.
The New York Times opinion pages found plenty to praise about the election. “Israel’s Democracy Is Doing Just Fine,” alleged the conservative columnist Brett Stephens on Friday. His liberal colleague Roger Cohen argued a couple of days earlier that the election may have “saved” Israel’s “precious democracy.” The paper’s editorial board celebrated that the next government will “move away from the aggressive and divisive right-wing statements” of the previous one.
Even the alternative Left media somewhat softened their criticism by praising the meager gains of the Joint (Arab) List. On Democracy Now!, Palestinian attorney Diana Buttu praised the Joint List for adopting an allegedly “anti-Zionist” platform and for being the only party to regularly use the word “occupation.” Left unsaid was that when they condemned the “occupation,” they only referred to the post-1967 occupation of 20% of Palestine, ignoring Israel’s occupation of the other 80% of Palestine since 1948. In reality, the Joint List is not anti-Zionist but non-Zionist.
So, the corporate media praises Israeli “democracy,” and even the Left media repeats Zionist assumptions about Israel’s legitimacy as a state. The reality, however, is that the Israeli election fails to live up to basic democratic criteria.
1. Forbidden from Voting
First, while a minimally democratic government would allow governed adults in general to vote, Israel denies voting rights to the 4.75 million Palestinians living under decades-long Israeli rule in the occupied West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. This means that some 70% of Palestinians living in historic Palestine do not get a say regarding the government that, in violation of international law, has governed them for over a half-century.
Additionally, Israel forbids about 6 million descendants of Palestinian refugees from exercising their human right to return and become potential voters. By banning their return, Israel violates international law as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’s Article, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Fourth Geneva Convention, and General Assembly Resolution 194. If these 6 million diasporic Palestinians were granted the right of return, many of them would move to historic Palestine and thus would deserve a right to vote.
In total, then, Israel only extends voting rights to 15% of Palestinians (1.8 of 12.5 million) and only 40% of potential voters overall (6 million Israeli Jews and 1.8 million Palestinian citizens of 18.5 million Palestinians and Israelis).
Disenfranchised and writing from the Gaza Strip, al-Aqsa University’s Professor Haidar Eid observes, “There is nothing for us Palestinians to celebrate. The oppressed blacks of South Africa did not get excited when the apartheid regime held elections in which they were not allowed to vote.”
2. No Alternative to a War-Criminal Leader
Second, while a democratic election would offer a real choice between substantially different outcomes, the Israeli election offered two nearly identical war-mongering candidates. The right-wing incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu presided over the 2014 Gaza massacre that killed an estimated 2,251 Palestinians overall, 1,462 (two-thirds) of them civilians. In this extremely one-sided war, Israel lost only 6 civilian lives. Netanyahu’s centrist opponent Benny Gantz served as Israeli armed forces chief throughout this bloodshed, and he boasts that he urged military might rather than restraint.
In the title of a campaign advertisement, Gantz boasted that parts of Gaza were bombed back “to the stone ages.” Showing a portion of the 2.5 million tons of rubble that the Israeli military left in Gaza, the video boasted that Israel killed 1,364 terrorists during the war. Actually, the UN Human Rights Council estimates that, of the 2,251 Palestinians killed, fewer than 800 were combatants (and even fewer can reasonably be considered “terrorists”). The Palestinian-American journalist Ali Abunimah astutely comments, “This means that Gantz considers Palestinian civilians to be legitimate targets – effectively an admission to war crimes.”
Under Netanyahu and Gantz’s orders, Israel committed massive war crimes during the 2014 invasion of Gaza. As expertly summarized in Norman Finkelstein’s Gaza: An Inquest into its Martyrdom, there is ample evidence that Israel’s armed forces disproportionately and intentionally targeted civilians and civilian targets. Some of the evidence actually comes from Israeli soldiers who testified to Breaking the Silence that they were ordered to shoot “at anything that moves.” Soldiers recall unleashing “non-stop fire all the time,” causing an “unimaginable level of destruction.”
Professor Eid provides his view: “Israelis do no know who their next Prime Minister is going to be. But we Palestinians are certain that he will be a white, Ashkenazi male committed to the Zionist consensus.”
Even the liberal Zionist New York Times editorial board admits that Gantz replacing Netanyahu “will not necessarily bode any major change in Israeli policy toward Palestinians.”
3. No Talk of Sharing the Land
Third, while a democratic election would consider the increasingly popular solution of sharing historic Palestine under secular governance, this one-democratic-state (ODS) solution did not make any major appearance in the election. Not a single ODS advocate won a seat in the parliament. ODS was not even advocated by the Joint List. In fact, Israeli law since 1958 has explicitly banned anti-Zionist candidates from runing for national office, effectively banning ODS supporters.
In a Washington Post column, Palestinian contributor Henreiette Chacar criticizes the Joint List as not providing a real alternative to Zionism: “[A]ll it offers is the two-state solution – an outdated, irrelevant vision that ignores years of Israel’s de facto annexation and apartheid policies.”
The absence of ODS from the election discourse is not due to a lack of popular support. The Wall Street Journal reported in June that the one-state solution has moved “to the mainstream” among Israelis and Palestinians as “officials, analysts and the public are increasingly skeptical of two states after decades of failed peace efforts.” The Journal reports, “Many Palestinians favor one state because they hope to become Israeli citizens and gain equal rights and more opportunities.”
20% of Israeli Jews also prefer ODS, according to a poll from last year. ODS came in second place, after the two-state solution and beating the options of “apartheid” and population “transfer.” Among self-identified religious Jews, support for ODS actually reached 25%, beating the two-state solution by ten percentage points.
While Palestinians are generally likely to tell pollsters they support the two-state solution, my own sense from traveling in the West Bank in 2013 is that support among Palestinians for ODS is much higher than polls indicate. Corroborating this view, the Palestinian lawyer Raja Shehadeh wrote recently in the New York Times, “That’s one reason that many Palestinians I know have come to believe in a one-state solution: After all, with so many Israeli settlements in the West Bank by now, a two-state solution would be impossible to implement.”
In 2007, a poll asked Palestinians point-blank if they would support “a one-state solution in historic Palestine where Muslims, Christians and Jews have equal rights and responsibilities.” A whopping 70% said yes to ODS.
Despite the relative popularity of the anti-Zionist ODS solution among Palestinians and even some Israeli Jews, Israel’s undemocratic election gave 0 seats to anti-Zionists and only 13 seats to non-Zionists. Some 107 seats went to staunch Zionists who flatly reject granting equal rights to Palestinians.
Not a Democracy
Given Israel’s deeply undemocratic history, it would be rather surprising if last week’s election fulfilled democratic criteria. After the state’s founding during the Zionists’ 1947-9 genocide against Palestinians, Israel imposed martial law on all its Palestinian citizens until 1966. Israeli abuse of its Palestinian citizens in this period reached a climax in the 1956Kafr Qasim massacre of 48 Palestinian peasants who returned from their fields without knowing that their village was under military curfew.
Although 2018’s Nation-State Law made it crystal clear that Israel is a state for its Jewish citizens and not for all citizens, Israel has always treated its Palestinian citizens as second-class. The civil rights organization Adalah publishes a database of over 65 Israeli policies that discriminate against Palestinians.
For example, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) manages 93% of Israel’s land, mostly through its controlling seats on the Israeli Land Authority, and avoids leasing to non-Jews. To give another example, Palestinian students go to segregated and underfunded schools that the Israeli newspaper Haaretz calls “separate but definitely not equal.” Each Palestinian student receives only one-fifth to one-third of the educational funding that each Jewish student gets.
It is based on the consistently poor treatment of Palestinians within Israel’s 1948 borders that the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe argues, “No, Israel is Not a Democracy.” Pappe notes that Israel would be better described as an ethnocracy or an apartheid state. Both terms apply.
The Israeli geographer Oren Yiftachel, in a 2006 study, labeled Israel an “ethnocracy,” meaning that its government is by and for a specific ethnicity rather than all its citizens. Yiftachel observed, “the exclusive privileges of the dominant ethnic group are constitutionally grounded in a number of most important Basic Laws.”
Although Yiftachel stopped short of applying the harsher term, “apartheid,” to Israel’s 1948 territories, a number of scholars and analysts have more recently made a convincing case that Israel is a full apartheid state. The term “apartheid” of course comes from the historic case of South Africa, but international law defines it in a more generalizable way, as “the inhuman acts committed for the purposes of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.”
The Palestinian scholar Saree Makdisi documents that Israeli policy toward Palestinians mirrors the central aspects of South African apartheid. Israel’s school segregation had a counterpart in South Africa’s Bantu Education Act that codified separate and unequal schools. Israel’s discriminatory leasing of land echoes South Africa’s Group Areas Act that assigned segregated residential areas to different races.
When a UN agency, the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, commissioned in 2017 an in-depth investigation by the researchers Richard Falk and Virginia Tilley, the report found that “Israel has established an apartheid regime.” It argued that apartheid against Israel’s Palestinian citizens, within the 1948 borders “is manifest by the provision of inferior social services, restrictive zoning laws, and limited budget allocations benefiting their communities, in formal and informal restrictions on jobs and professional opportunities, and in the segregated landscapes of their places of residence.”
On the issue of elections, the report notes that although Palestinian citizens of Israel can vote, they cannot vote for equality since Israeli law bans anti-Zionist candidates. “An analogy,” the authors point out, “would be a system in which slaves have the right to vote but not against slavery.”