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Israelis cannot 'democratically' decide to continue the occupation

The absence of the occupation – the single most important issue which dominates life of Jews and Palestinians in this country – from the Israeli election campaigns, reflects a national existential crisis, and could render the entire democratic process meaningless. 

Third Friday of Ramadan, Bethlehem checkpoint, West Bank, 10.08.2012

Israelis will go to the polls in four days to determine their future, along with that of several million Palestinians who are under Israeli control. This is the inherent paradox in the Israeli system: a majority voting again and again not to allow a very large minority to participate in its political system. One can view Israel as a democracy only from the standpoint of the Jews and (maybe) a little over 1 million Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship. From the point of view of other Palestinians, Israel is a brutal dictatorship, which – like many other such regimes – controls them through force and force alone. This is a simple statement of the facts.

This state of affairs could have been somewhat tolerable – if not from the point of view of the Palestinians, than at least according to acceptable international norms – if it was limited in time, or if the Jewish majority was doing everything in its power to terminate the military control over the millions of non-citizens. Clearly, this is not the case. Even among many advocates of the two-state solution, the consensus is that the Palestinians need to win their rights by meeting various Israeli conditions on issues ranging from rights over land, water and air space to the recognition of the Jewish narrative regarding the history of the conflict and the legitimacy of the Israeli ethnic-state. It is a political philosophy that runs contrary to the liberal view that human and political rights are something that a person is born with, and cannot be arbitrarily stripped from a whole community of human beings. The fact that this view is hardly challenged reflects the utter corruption of the Israeli political and moral debate – another result of the occupation.

Only in the fringe of the political system one can find a different approach. Meretz, the most left-wing Zionist party, as well as the non-Zionist parties Hadash, Balad and the United Arab List (Ra’am-Ta’al) demand an immediate recognition of the Palestinians’ political rights and of a Palestinian State, followed by negotiations over the mechanism that would terminate the occupation. Meretz’s plan include annulling the Oslo Accords, which were due to expire in 1999 and have since become part of the system of control over the Palestinians that Israel has implemented.

Interestingly enough, none of the non-Zionist parties advocate a one-state solution – not even Balad. During a meeting that I attended, Balad party leader Jamal Zehalka said that while support for the one-state solution is clearly on the rise in Balad, the idea remains “within an intellectual conversation,” and not part of the official party platform. A couple of right-wing members of Knesset in the Likud have came out in support of handing the Palestinians full rights within Israel, but the idea was never developed beyond general statements; clearly the Israeli right see no reason to challenge the status quo.

The rest of the political parties – represented by over 100 of the 120 members of Knesset – accept this system of ethnic control, which is carried out on a legal level through the distinction between the military-held territories and the rest of Israel, and between citizens and non-citizens (yet make no mistake – it is but one system). Those parties view the Palestinian issue as a matter of conflict-resolution which needs to be managed in the years and decades to come, and they have certain differences among them on the way it should be managed. However, they are united in the denying of civilian, political and human rights from most of the Palestinian population under Israeli control at the present moment.

Recent elections in Israel could be seen as a referendum that sees the Israeli public select the same alternative again and again. Even when Israelis vote “on the economy,” or “on social issues” like those which dominate the current campaign, they vote to deny the rights of the Palestinians. The perception surrounding the vote could be different, but the outcome will not be. This is also a simple fact.

Democracy creates certain added legitimacy for the policies of sovereign states because they are seen as a reflection of “the national will,” as much as such abstractions are possible. But decisions to deny civilian, political and human rights from native minorities are not considered part of the rights of a majority in a democracy, certainly when most of this minority cannot take part in the vote.

In next week’s elections, any outcome that would reaffirm the continuation of control by force over most of the Palestinian population under Israeli sovereignty and does not include recognition of their rights is illegitimate, despite the appearance of a democratic process that preceded it.

Read more:
Bibi can relax – the ‘center-left’ is really on the right
Father who lost daughter in suicide attack to Israelis: Vote for peace
Obama’s attack on Netanyahu could backfire at polls
A real alternative? Tzipi Livni is far worse than Netanyahu

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    1. Aaron Gross

      Your factual statements are true. The formula that “a democracy is a monarchy to its colonies” was already a commonplace in the 19th century, or the early 20th century at the latest. Of course it applies with “colonies” replaced by “occupied territories.”

      On the other hand, your idea of rights contradicts the UN (including UNSC Resolution 242), the overwhelming consensus in international public law, and centuries of Enlightenment, liberal tradition – exactly that tradition that gave us, for good or ill, the Rights of Man and human rights. This enlightenment world-view claims certain natural (“human”) rights to all human beings, but it does not claim rights to self-determination or suffrage for populations under occupation.

      None of this means that you’re wrong, only that your argument is far outside the mainstream of both human rights and humanitarian thinking. You could say that just means their discourse hasn’t caught up to the concept of a prolonged belligerent occupation. In any case, you’re not only representing a fringe position in Israel; you’re representing a fringe position in international politics and international public law.

      Reply to Comment
      • You are arguing with something which isn’t in the text. Who said anything about self-determination? Political rights could be given whithin Israel as well.

        Reply to Comment
        • Aaron Gross

          Apologies for misreading, then. You talked a lot about a Palestinian state, so I mistakenly thought that self-determination was another one of your supposed rights.

          But my response still stands. Replace “self-determination” by “political representation.” Your position is still on the fringe relative to the UN and to both humanitarian and human rights discourse.

          Reply to Comment
      • directrob

        ” It is also for al1 States, while respecting the United Nations Charter and international law, to see to it that any impediment, … , to the exercise by the Palestinian people of its right to self-determination is brought to an end”

        Aaron, I am no expert in law, but the ICJ seems to think the Palestinians have a right to self determination.

        Reply to Comment
        • Aaron Gross

          Now, Rob, you elided a key phrase from that quote. The actual quote is this: “It is also for all States, while respecting the United Nations Charter and international law, to see to it that any impediment, resulting from the construction of the wall, to the exercise by the Palestinian people of its right to self-determination is brought to an end.”

          Whatever right of self-determination there is for peoples in general, obviously applies to the Palestinian people in particular. I think that’s the “right of self-determination” the ICJ was referring to. This vague, abstract, and very limited right does not grant them the more specific supposed rights declared by Noam.

          The ICJ ruled that the separation barrier, in its current path, is illegal. Therefore, of course impediments created by the parts of the barrier that cut through the territories should be removed. That’s because of the barrier’s supposed illegality, not because of any abstract right to self-determination.

          By the way, some important jurists who agree that Israeli settlement violates the Geneva Convention still think that the ICJ ruled very badly in that case. But even so, the ruling is still generally within the mainstream, unlike Noam’s argument.

          Reply to Comment
          • directrob

            Aaron, sorry I snipped too much (did not pay attention to the lone all).

            The point is that the Palestinians do have a concrete right of self-determination (it can be impeded).

            The 40 years of occupation is in conflict with the Palestinian right of self-determination. Self-determination is a very important right.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            >The 40 years of occupation is in conflict with the Palestinian right of self-determination.

            Could you please explain how exactly Israel did interfered with the right?

            What did Palestinians wanted to do, but were not able because of Israel?

            A list with dates would make nicely.

            Or just few relevant examples from 40-35 years ago.

            Reply to Comment
          • Aaron Gross

            Belligerent occupation is also a very important right, one with 200 years of legal backing.

            Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          Since Palestinian self-determination includes destruction of state of Israel I have that opinion of the ICJ is a bit irrelevant.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Rights are at first implemented against the State. There is no reason for a democratic majority to acknowledge the rights of a minority (so create them in positive law) unless the majority is actually a set of minorities agreeing to check one another. In the case of Israeli Arabs, history is used to exclude them from any such majority coalition of minorities; in fact, alliance against this minority helps create the sense of a single majority electing.

      Judiciaries impose rights against the State. This places them outside that which pays them, this developing the in common law as a judiciary independent of the crown which earlier had created it. There is very little sense in Israel of something outside the State. Aaron Barak tried to create such with his notion that “law is everywhere,” but the suicide bombings slapped that down, and now Barak is gone. I believe you have within your Declaration of Independence an “outside” constitutional logic of rights formation which was created AT THE SAME TIME AS THE STATE. The tool is there, but to use it Justices must alter their war derived view of being fully embedded in the State.

      What Israel has done is dislodge democracy and rights formation even as the West has asserted their essential codependence. To defend this outcome, the right (on this site) continually harps back to a war narrative applicable to the present. The occupation’s success has made this narrative inapplicable; it has become a policing action, not a war. This allows rights rhetoric to seep into policing events, making rights free floating, imploring implementation somehow. PA appeal for standing in the ICJ will be an attempt to give rights a jurisdictional home.

      I believe Noam right in what he says, but the response of the elite and its electorate has already been to remove constitutional rights from democracy. Rights will be an agreement of majorities, which are no rights, global, at all. Talk of the Weimer Republic, in outcome but not process, is, I think, now legitimate. With the structural bar of race, an electoral majority can control a populace for some time even when an actual demographic minority. It will all be framed as part of an ongoing war reaching back centuries. Justice stops history; war will have none of that.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Kolumn9

      This argument only makes sense if one argues that the Palestinians in the West Bank are unrepresented Israeli citizens. However, they are neither citizens, nor apparently desire to be, nor are they lacking in their own representation nor are they living in territory recognized as being Israeli, nor are they living in territory they consider Israeli. Nor are they short of means of exercising sovereignty should their elected leadership accept it. Nor is it true that the Israeli leadership has not tried to find solutions that would allow them to fully exercise their political rights.

      In other words, the argument makes absolutely no sense outside of a very confined narrative that you are hostage to.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Philos

      @Aaron Gross, a total misreading of international law and human rights literature. It has been affirmed in multiple UN resolutions of both the UNGA and UNSC (that make up customary international law) that the right to self-determination is an “inalienable” human right. It also appears in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Now regardless of this minor quibble you seem to think that human rights and political rights (or natural rights or the rights of man) are contingent on citizenship of a state and therefore not applicable to persons living under occupation. This, and I can say categorically, this is totally wrong. There isn’t a scholar or diplomat (apart from paid wingnuts or diplomats from Sudan or North Korea, and, alas, maybe Israel) that would agree with you. Human rights, by their definition, are universal and are only contingent upon being a human being. A human being who is a citizen of a state, a human being who is refugee, a human being who was born on the Moon. They are human rights. They cannot be infringed during wartime, peacetime or at any other time. They are not contingent upon time or place. They are universal. Read the UNDHR and read all the legal, scholarly and UN resolutions dealing with the topic. It is categorical. There is no quibbling on this point. As for the Rights of Man, and Enlightenment philosophy (I presume you mean Kantian, Hobbesian, Lockean, Rousseauean and Utilitarian), again YOU ARE on the fringe with your interpretations. All rights philosophers believed that we are born with rights that are only contingent on our being human. Now how they interpreted that was what differentiated them. Hobbes felt that our natural rights were the problem because I am born so free that I may just be tempted not to have this debate with you and kill you. So Hobbes solution was that in order to prevent the natural rights of one person (my right to use my physical strength to resolve an argument) infringing on another person’s (your right to life or bodily preservation) we needed to all submit our rights to the arbitration of a higher authority, the Leviathan. But, at the root, the Leviathan is there to protect the natural rights every person is born with just because they are human. This strain of thinking is found through all the Enlightenment political and existential philosophy. Not one of them makes rights contingent on the form of government one happens to be born under. The US declaration of independence does not read “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, [On the condition that said men are born in a recognized state and not into any condition of colonialism or military occupation, in which case said unalienable rights do not apply].
      God, sorry guys for the long comment, but as a scholar I cannot allow such wingnuttism to defame human rights and natural rights literature. The trolls may read but we must refute their nutty interpretations. Noam, you are not on the fringe. What you wrote is the broad consensus regarding the universality of human (and political) rights. That the Palestinians have no individual political rights is one of the gravest ongoing human rights violations today, among the many others that darken the lives of billions of other unfortunate people.

      Reply to Comment
      • Yo Mo

        Surely what is at issue for the many in the Israeli electorate is not whether Palestinians have inalienable rights – it is how the implementation of those rights impact on the inalienable rights of Israeli citizens- ie not right versus no right, but rather one right against another right. Most polls suggest that Israelis would favour a two state solution if they believed it would not lead to a major risk to the safety of Israeli citizens. It is arguably the loss of this belief that has led to prevailing political trends, not the denial of Palestinians’ inherent rights.

        Reply to Comment
        • Philos

          Yo Mo, the day that Israelis even consider the notion of Palestinians rights during an election will be a great day indeed. We are yet to see any Zionist platform couch their rhetoric in support of a two-state solution in terms of Palestinian rights. The prevailing formula is that set out by the late Yitzhak Rabin, “Us over here and them over there.” There isn’t an argument that the occupation should end because it is a grave violation of human rights and a stain on Israeli democracy; there is an argument over whether we can maintain the “Jewishness” of Israeli democracy with or without the occupation. Palestinian rights and their infringement do not enter the debate except among the Arab parties and the non-Zionist parties. Not even Peace Now makes a mention of Palestinian rights anymore…. It is as Noam pointed out all part of the corrupting influence of ongoing, never ending, occupation.

          Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            When you ask for the impossible you will be disappointed. The Palestinians are perceived justly as foreigners whose national narrative includes the desire to hurt and kill Israelis. Your request to have the majority of the population take their ‘rights’ into account in political decisions is unreasonable and would not be expected of any other people in the world. This has nothing to do with corruption. It is the result of the resort by the Palestinians to premeditated violence against Israeli civilians and its continued celebration which politically overrides any and all concern for the Palestinians and their rights.

            The demand for the government to willfully allow its citizens to be put in danger in the interest of the supposed ‘rights’ of hostile foreigners is one that no political system is capable of accepting.

            Reply to Comment
    5. Michael

      Of course is a majority muslim state the writer would be dead. Because Jews even self hating ones are considered to to children of pigs and monkey’s to be exterminated.

      Which country should Israel emulate in the Middle East?

      Syria where the civil war for who gets to be dictator has killed 60,000 civilians.

      Perhaps Egypt where the “democratic” revolution ended with Islamic rule and Christians are being jailed for their religion.

      Perhaps Iran where ministers are scheduled to be executed for formally being muslims.

      Aaah and the feminist utopia of Saudi Arabia, a country where no one can practice any religion that Islam and women get to be driven around by their men, because its a crime for any woman to drive at all, or leave the house without a man.

      Reply to Comment