Israel is not a democracy

Ahmed Mustafa
Tuesday 11 Apr 2023

Criticisms by Israel’s Western backers of laws introduced by the country’s current coalition government have less to do with democratic ideals than with strategic interests.


The talk of a rift between Israel and its Western backers may sound like music to the ears of some around the world, especially those opposed to the occupation of Palestine. However, the reality is more likely to be contrary to what many of us might think, despite the noise and exaggeration surrounding recent official statements. 

The US and some other “Western democracies” are criticising the Israeli government in public as a means of putting pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, hoping to prevent it from rapidly pivoting towards becoming an ultra-right fundamentalist junta. 

But the intention is not to promote democratic ideals or protect liberalism or any other rhetoric along those lines. The extremist religious parties who form Netanyahu’s coalition government were democratically elected.

It might be true that there is not much personal chemistry between Netanyahu and Democratic US President Joe Biden. But that is not an issue when it comes to strategic relationships. Though the West, mainly the Europeans, invested heavily in the establishment of the state of Israel even before its creation in 1948, the US has led the way as its main supporter and investor. Threatening Israel’s power is thus almost a direct threat to US interests. 

The US has almost abandoned its classic position in this instance when it pertains to promoting principles such as free speech. This was emboldened by its lack of support for “liberal” demonstrators in Israel calling for scrapping laws that restrict freedoms. If taking a step back becomes the norm for the US, this could greatly influence the trajectory of Israel’s future.

Demonstrations, sometimes violent, started against the new laws proposed by extremists in Netanyahu’s coalition government. They were branded as a reform of the country’s judiciary by the government, but they came closer to being a decapitation of the country’s legal institutions since the proposed laws weaken the judges from challenging the constitutional legitimacy of the executive or legislative branches of government. 

The introduction of such laws was a requirement by the extremist religious parties to give Netanyahu a majority so he could become prime minister after the elections last year. There are also other provisions in the proposed laws that curtail the power of the elected Knesset to oust the prime minister and that allow the formation of a “militia-like” National Guard under National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.

All these provisions are designed to give religious extremists more control of the state, pushing it closer to being a theocracy. Even though the US and the West are not interested in Israel becoming a theocracy, they have found themselves tolerating this prospect. It is possible that some Western thinkers might also validate this as a democracy based on the people (the demos) becoming more religious, as the word implies. 

Yet, the basic law of the State of Israel is already in essence theocratic. A few years ago, a law on the “Jewishness” of Israel was ratified and was accepted by the rest of the world despite the fact that a religious state is by its nature discriminatory of the rights of citizens not sharing that religion. 

Many countries apply Islamic Sharia Law through some aspects of their laws, and some parties in Western democracies retain the word Christian in their names and values. Yet, in today’s world there are only two officially religious states:  Shiite Iran and Jewish Israel. The short-lived third was the defunct “Islamic State in Syria and Iraq” (IS or Daesh in Arabic) that was established by Sunni Islamist terrorists and destroyed by an international coalition. 

Is there some underlying meaning to these three names all starting with an ‘I’?

The irony is that the notion promoted by the West about Israel being a “democratic oasis in a troubled region” could also logically be applied to Iran. This also conducts free elections, like in the US and other democracies. Both Iran and Israel will now have militia-like forces different from the traditional army and law-enforcement agencies as a result of the proposed laws in Israel – the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran and the National Guard in Israel.

It seems almost impossible for a religious state to be genuinely democratic, but that does not matter much when it comes to strategic interests. Moreover, the rising tide of religious extremism in Israel is consistent with the rising tide of extremist right wing forces in many Western democracies today. A major concern for the US and the other Western powers is that the accelerated rate of radical change in Israel is not helping its stability. They fear for their investment in the country, regardless of the rhetoric about democracy, liberalism or civil rights.

At the end of the last century, few people around the world predicted that the next century – the one we live in now – would be a century of religion. This seemed a valid point of view, notably as a result of the demise of major ideologies around the world at the end of the Cold War.

I remember writing an article in Arabic entitled “Groups not States” about the rise of fringe groups at the expense of nation-states at the time, in which my concern was the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood (the ikhwan) and its terrorist offshoots from Islamic Jihad to Al-Qaeda. Israel’s backers in the West might now fear the prospect of its fragmentation into groups, whether militant or non-militant, as this would represent a possibly existential threat to their investment in the country.

New states like the US, Canada, and Australia were settled over several centuries, with religion playing no role in their creation. Though you can still hear the words “German-American” and “Irish-American,” – or more likely today “African-American” and “Hispanic-American” – in the US, the system prevents the state from fragmenting. There are also no threats coming from the indigenous population to the existence of the state. 

However, Israel is not in the same situation. The Palestinians are still present and are neither assimilated into the State of Israel nor ready to give up fighting for their rights. Until this issue is resolved, the US-led Western backers of Israel will feel an obligation to protect the Jewish State.

* The writer is a London-based seasoned journalist.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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