Democracy…or “Democracy for All?”

One result of the protests against Netanyahu’s attempt to eviscerate the Israeli Supreme Court is that “conventional discourse has been changing. The language has been changing. More people are talking not only about democracy, but democracy for all,” said May Pundak, Executive Director of A Land For All (ALFA), which advocates a confederation of Israeli and Palestinian states.

Like others fighting against the occupation, she hopes to tap into the fierce energies that demonstrators devoted to salvaging Israeli democracy and build more support for the democratic rights of Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line. “People have started to ask themselves, ‘What is democracy?’ They are giving themselves a civics lesson,” according to Pundak.

As the demonstrations picked up steam in March, the rhetoric of the Israeli anti-occupation bloc began to shift, with a newfound emphasis on “democracy” and “equality.” It’s not that those concepts were previously ignored by the Israeli left, but recently they’ve played a central role in its messaging. A statement signed by more than 30 different organizations, drafted by ALFA and converted into a front page ad in Haaretz, was headlined “Democracy and Equality for All.” Its core message is:

We have joined the protest against the government as part of an anti-occupation bloc in order to state clearly: The struggle for democracy must be based on the struggle against the occupation and for full equality. A state that denies rights to millions of people and systematically discriminates against a fifth of its citizens can’t be considered a democracy…

We see this protest as an important opportunity to spread the message that only a struggle for the rights of those living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea can guarantee democracy, and the meaning of real democracy is ending discrimination, the occupation and Jewish supremacy….

While it got little attention in the Hebrew press,  it was covered in Palestinian media. 

Were the signatories—a very diverse group of legal and civil rights organizations, confederation advocates, Peace Now and others—too marginal to move the needle of Israeli public opinion? Perhaps. But “something is bubbling up to the surface, fermenting,” Pundak asserted, as people realize that “democracy and equality for Jews is not only unjust; it isn’t stable.” She cited a demonstration at Hebrew University where, with Israeli flags in the background, a mostly Jewish crowd chanted, “Democracy for all, from the river to the sea.”  

The battle to preserve checks and balances in Israel’s democracy was put on hold when Netanyahu agreed to negotiate rather than ram through proposed legislation, but it’s far from over. Will insisting upon Palestinians’ democratic rights make a difference to an Israeli public that, Pundak noted, “has been comfortably numb” about the occupation? Will it help bring the plight and future of Palestinians in the occupied territories back on the political agenda, after the issue practically vanished during the last few Israeli elections?

It might help and it’s certainly worth a try.  But it’s much more likely that the current annexationist Israeli government will do more to puncture the comfortable numbness.

An Alternative to One State?

For decades, the Zionist left has been repeating the same warning:  if West Bank Jewish settlements continue to expand and thicken, and if Palestinians in the occupied territories are deprived of civil and human rights and self-determination, then Israelis will be forced to choose whether they want to live in a Jewish state or a democracy.  Netanyahu’s far-right government might finally compel them to make that choice, as noted by Carolina Landsmann, writing in Haaretz:

The true reform sought by this “fully right-wing” government is reversing the diplomatic horizon. There will be no more two-state solution, and there will be no territorial compromises. The new diplomatic horizon will be a single state, with the Palestinians as subjects deprived of citizenship. One state with two legal systems. Apartheid. Jewish supremacy.

But what’s the alternative to this right-wing vision? What, in practice, would “democracy for all” look like?  A unified binational state where everyone has the right to vote is a non-starter for most Israelis–who would lose their right to self-determination in their own country—as well as, polls show, most Palestinians. And it’s hard to imagine how to pull the intubation tube from the conventional two state solution developed during the Oslo years, although some, like J Street’s Nadav Tamir, offer rescue plans.  

New, fresh thinking is needed.  As Pundak puts it, “We need to transform the conversation from what we are fighting against to what we are fighting for.” ALFA advocates the premise of “Two States, One Homeland,” a kind of two states 2.0.  Check out their Q&A for details on how it would work, as the plan is too complex to be summed up here.  What offers me a glimmer of hope is that they tackle major obstacles to the conventional two-state formula: the need to evacuate many Israeli settlers who have no intention of moving, and the unshakeable Palestinian commitment to the Right of Return. 

When it comes to “democracy for all” in this shared homeland, Palestinians would have a fully democratic sovereign state next to Israel that is not under the thumb of the Israeli military, and the plan calls for action to be taken “to amend existing discriminatory laws and practices that prevent equal participation by Palestinian citizens of Israel as equal citizens in their country.”

A different iteration of the same ideas is presented in The Holy Land Confederation Plan by Palestinian lawyer Hibi Husseini, Yossi Beilin, an architect of the Oslo Accords and prime mover of the Geneva Initiative, and other Israeli and Palestinian experts. 

It’s going to take a lot of grassroots work, and perhaps too much time, before these concepts are taken seriously by Israel’s political establishment, or –more improbably—somehow the two-state models from Oslo or Geneva are resurrected. The Palestinians, of course, also must get their house in order.  One key is for the Palestinian Authority to hold long-delayed elections in the West Bank and provide leaders with the political clout to negotiate on behalf of Palestinians. 

In the meantime, as the struggle to preserve the power of Israel’s Supreme Court continues,  insistently promoting the goal of democracy for all, and continuing to provide a national civics lesson, might help to move the needle in the right direction. Meron Rapoport puts it well in an angry but cautiously hopeful essay entitled “The Israeli right’s arrogance has made a new struggle possible” (trigger warning to the squeamish part of the pro-Israel peace camp: he uses the word “apartheid”):

Anyone who tries to turn Israel “democratic” instead of “Jewish,” anyone who tries to draft a constitution or enshrine equality in the Basic Laws, will soon run into the massive elephant in the room: the rights and privileges enjoyed only by Jews and the regime of occupation and apartheid over Palestinians. We are still far from actualizing full democracy. But these days, we should allow ourselves a bit of optimism. The racist right, in its arrogance, mobilized opposition forces that no one — even the center and left — knew existed. The failure of the right has opened the possibility that this opposition will demand a fundamental change, a change Israel hasn’t seen since 1948.

Fleshler Dan