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New bill would condition Knesset electability on completion of military service

Palestinian citizens cannot be expected to serve an institution that protects the Jewish identity of the state. If Israel prohibits its Palestinian citizens from participating in elections, it would cease to function as a democracy, and it would lose its case against claims of apartheid.

By Fady Khoury

The media reported this week that MK Moshe Matalon (Yisrael Beiteinu) has introduced a new bill prohibiting citizens who have not completed military, national or civil service from being elected to the Knesset. This bill joins an array of several other bills proposed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, which condition civil and social rights upon completion of military service.

The new bill is an amendment to the Basic Law: the Knesset, in which the right to be elected is provided to all citizens 21 years of age and older. The condition of completing army service aims to exclude from elections Palestinian citizens who are categorically exempt from military service, and Haredi Jews who do not enlist in the army.

The implications of this bill on what’s left of Israeli democracy, if the Knesset approves it, are obviously devastating, in that it moves Israel closer if not fully turning it into an apartheid state. The Israeli Hasbara efforts in the international arena to refute any claims of apartheid practices against Palestinians rely solely on the fact the distinctions it makes are based on citizenship status and not on ethnicity. This in turn means that if Israel prohibits its Palestinian citizens from participating in elections, it would cease to function as a democracy, and its case against claims of apartheid would lose its main arguments.

One might argue that the Palestinians can always do national service – a state community work program – if military service is considered to be unacceptable as a result of its link to the Israeli occupation of the West bank and Gaza Strip. This notion assumes a duty that is unacceptable in my view. The IDF is an organization that aims to uphold and protect the Jewish nature of the state and not only the occupation of the Palestinian territories. Those who are invested in the Jewish nature of the state can be morally obligated to serve in the army and protect it, since they constitute the group that gains from its protection. The Palestinian citizens cannot be morally expected to protect the Jewish identity of the state since they are not represented in it, but rather suffer from it. This in turn leads to the conclusion that as long as the state is formally identified as Jewish, those who are Jewish can be expected and obligated to sacrifice in order to maintain it, while those who are not invested in maintaining it must be morally exempt from such an obligation, and from any alternative obligations.

The notion of equality in rights in exchange for equality in duties is not disturbed by my analysis. In the Jewish state, the Jews are afforded the right to a state based on their collective identity features in exchange for sacrificing three years of their lives. A transition towards a bi-national state might give rise to the Palestinian citizens’ moral obligation to serve in the army and as I have put it elsewhere, to be “Good Citizens.”

Also, the fact that the bill’s wording relies on military or national service and does not specifically mention Palestinians is irrelevant. Indirect methods of targeting a group are equally forbidden, and the mere choice of a criterion that applies mainly to the Palestinians is enough to render it discriminatory.

This bill thus has little to no chance of passing, which raises a question as to Yisrael Beiteinu’s motives in introducing it. One possible explanation is that Yisrael Beiteinu’s Knesset members are aware of this fact and aim to gain political points with their target audience in preparation for the 2013 elections. One must not forget that Yisrael Beiteinu’s previous election was based on the promise to “deal” with the Palestinians in Israel, summed up by their slogan, “Only Lieberman understands Arabic.” This bill is Lieberman’s way to show his voters that he kept his end of the bargain.

Or maybe Yisrael Beiteinu MKs are simply blinded by their neo-fascist agenda and are willing to sacrifice the most sacred democratic value of all – the right to participate in the democratic process – in the name of patriotism.

Nevertheless, assuming this bill does fail, I expect Yisrael Beiteinu’s attempts at diminishing Palestinian representation in the Knesset to reappear in the form of a request to the Central Elections Committee (CEC) to disqualify Palestinian parties from participating in the upcoming 2013 elections. Noam Sheizaf predicts in this “death of democracy” scenario that the CEC will likely disqualify MK Haneen Zoabi, and the decision might go either way for her party, Balad. Sheizaf also thinks that Raam-Taal – MK Ahmad Tibi’s party –will be disqualified by the CEC’s decision, which will be overturned by the Supreme Court.

I’m more pessimistic than Sheizaf. I think that the CEC will disqualify all Palestinian parties. The recent tendency of the Supreme Court to avoid conflict with other branches of government might lead it to uphold the CEC decision this time, in contrast with previous rulings to overturn the committee’s decisions in both the 2003 and 2009 elections. My pessimism is based on recent High Court’s rulings, the latest of which upholds the Citizenship Law despite its apparent violation of Palestinian citizens’ right to unite with their spouses from the Palestinian territories, and live as a family in Israel. The ruling of the majority, which contains legal mistakes and anomalies, overturned the previous court’s decision regarding the right to establish a family in Israel as a constitutional right. This shows that the court is not only avoiding intervention where intervention is required in order to protect human rights, but, as Prof. Aeyal Gross put it in this article [in Hebrew], that it is regressing in its perception of what human rights include. I expect that the High Court’s new approach will lead when it considers the disqualification of Palestinian parties, probably resulting in affirming the CEC’s decisions.

One thing is certain though – Israeli democracy, or what remains of it, is in jeopardy. The recent right-wing extremists’ initiatives are merely the tip of the iceberg, and once they receive more support from the public and are reelected, we will witness the slipperiest slope this country has ever known.

Fady Khoury is a legal intern at Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not Adalah. 

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    1. Palestinian

      I dont think Palestinian kenesset members make that difference ,they will always be a minority in the Zionist circus of fascism.10 members wont pass any law that can help the Palestinians in Israel (return their basic rights),in Arabic ,zay 2ellethom

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    2. Carl

      Palestinian, that’s just an argument against democracy per se. You’re arguing that no group should participate in elections unless they form a majority.
      More to the point, this is a truly awful suggestion for a law: awful for Israeli Arabs and Israeli democracy, and another PR disaster in the making. I can’t see it being enacted at its first attempt mind, as Netanyahu still has political horizons slightly past his own navel, unlike most of his coalition partners.

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    3. Noam W

      Fadi I am not sure I understand your argument regarding non-military national service. Are you saying that as long as Israel defines itself as a Jewish State, everybody who is not Jewish should also be exempted from non-military service because it amplifies the Jewish nature of the service?

      I do not think for a second that service in the military, or anywhere else for that matter, should be linked to the right to vote. Nor am I a huge fan of all types of national services – military or otherwise.

      But I fail to see the connection between ethnicity and non-national military service.

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    4. Sinjim

      @Noam W: The way I interpreted what Fady wrote is that he’s talking about the case of service being requisite to voting or other rights. Even if the state provides for alternative obligations to military service, it is still requiring Palestinian citizens to preserve its Jewish identity by providing their services to the Jewish state.
      Given that Palestinian citizens are actually harmed by their second-class status that results from Israel’s Jewish character, such a requirement is not only unfair but also morally reprehensible.

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    5. Fady K.

      @Noam W. SinJim got it right.
      I didn’t elaborate on this issue because I wanted to keep it short. But my argument is that IDF’s main job is to protect the Jewish nature of the state. The democratic nature is not on jeopardy from inside or outside threats. The controversial character is its Jewish nature. Therefore, I don’t believe it should be morally expected that the Palestinian serve in the army. That goes for the alternative, which is national service. From the state’s point of view, national service is an alternative for army service, and that assumes that the fact that Palestinians don’t serve creates an unbalance in the rights-duties ratio between that of the Jews and that of the Palestinians.
      This assumption of equality in rights overlooks the main right that the Jews have, which is a state that they can identify with and a state in which their and only their right for self determination gets realized,
      Every other minority you might find are probably the result of immigration. Therefore, they are less entitled morally to voice such an argument since the mere act of immigration can be interpreted as accepting the state’s paradigm.
      I can write about this a lot, but my main argument is that the assumption of equality is simply mistaken under the present circumstances, and that requiring Palestinians to serve in the army, or fulfill a similar duty under the ministry of defense, is an immoral demand because it asks of them to sacrifice for the common good of the Jewish group, not their own, in the most basic sense.

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    6. Palestinian

      Carl , what you said is right when we discuss a normal society , where all people work for the sake of “their” nation ,when all parties and groups are part of the country ,they may differ in their views ,positions and beliefs but they are all equal ,they supposedly work for a better place to live in together but in Israel ,Palestinians (not Arabs as you called them,they are Arabs but in our case they should be referred to as Palestinians)are considered and dealt with as the enemy from within ,its US VS THEM ,so they dont repesent a political party among other parties,it has nothing to do with democracy.

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    7. Piotr Berman

      Yes, this is the principle of ancient Polish democracy: one saber one vote. No saber, no vote (that included peasants, townies and Jews).

      Then the voting principle was full consensus. However, being in a small minority that opposes the majority could seriously decrease your life expectancy given the aforementioned sabers. One should note that the use of firearms as means of political discourse was very much frowned upon.

      Similarly, the oldest parliament of Europe, Icelandic Thing was the assembly of all free armed men, and without a sword, battle axe or at least a spear there would be no point of showing up. Again, coalition building was of utmost importance.

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    8. Sam

      Carl wrote: “Palestinian, that’s just an argument against democracy per se.”
      Well, it depends on what you mean by democracy: if it’s the false cover-narrative used here to give this state legitimacy, then yea, the presence of Arab Knesset members is superfluous, if not detrimental – now more than ever.

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    9. It is a violation of equal protection to exclude a race from conscription. Benefits can result from military service; Arab Israelis are mostly excluded from any such; Arab volunteerism should imply Jewish volunteerism.
      While the bill will fail, I point out once again that a sitting legislature should not be able to define its future members. Only a Constitution can remove this jeopardy.

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    10. Palestinian

      Greg , correction : Palestinian Israelis

      Reply to Comment
    11. Aaron

      I don’t really understand the basic claim of this article. (I’m blaming that on myself, not the article.) Isn’t the background premise that Israel in reality is and always has been not a universal democracy, but rather a “democracy of the Jews”? (I accept that premise, by the way.)
      Given that premise, why the worry that Israel would “cease to function as a democracy,” if it never has been a universal democracy in the first place? This law is objectionable on various grounds, but as far as democracy, wouldn’t it just be mostly a formal change, one which would make the outward form of the so-called democracy correspond even more to the non-democratic substance?
      That said, I agree with the article on policy if not on the theory. The proposed law is ridiculous and demagogic. Arab citizens of Israel should not be asked to serve in the military or in “national” service, they have no moral obligation to do so (unlike Jews), and they should not lose any rights or privileges because of that. They’re already denied the most important privilege: the very fact of membership in the Staatvolk.

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    12. Sam

      “Democracy of the Jews” is, by definition, not a democracy. You could keep saying it, but it does not make it more of a democracy.

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    13. Carl

      Palestinian and Sam: points taken. Palestinian I just thought the way you framed it in the first post came across as a generic argument against democracy, but you’ve sharpened it up for me with that next one. Any chance you could make your user name less generic though as asking Palestinian what he thinks another Palestinian might think about Palestinian issues is the sort of thing which confuses me.
      I’d say that Israel suffers from the usual democratic deficit in that a narrow majority generally controls things with a small percentage of the vote. But when you add laws like this (if it passes) then you’re essentially legislating for disenfranchisement. Few self respecting Palestinians would agree to join an organisation they view as dedicated to their political and cultural nullification, whether it’s in an explicitly military role or an administrative one. Yisrael Beiteinu know this and they also know it’s a great way of getting Palestinians to rid the Knesset of Arab MKs, rather than having to do it directly themselves.

      Reply to Comment
    14. Aaron

      Sam, I agree that a “democracy of the Jews” is not what people are talking about when they call Israel a democracy. As to whether that’s a democracy at all, that’s a question of semantics. There are some people who call ancient Athens a democracy, and there are some people who call the pre-1960s US a democracy. Israel is a “democracy” in the same non-universal sense as each of those, i.e., a democracy of only a certain class of people. I guess I don’t understand your objection, because all I’m doing is echoing Ahmed Tibi, whom I’ve quoted on this lots of times.

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    15. Carl

      Fady: “I didn’t elaborate on this issue because I wanted to keep it short”.

      Any chance you could elaborate on it in a separate article sometime as I – and likely quite a few others – would be very interested to read it.

      Reply to Comment
    16. Aaron

      Fady, I second Carl’s request to elaborate on your comment in an article. I agree with every word you wrote in the comment. I’ve thought that way basically for a long time, but you phrased it in a different and more precise way than I’d thought about it before.
      By the way, the term “national service” is kind of ironic, assuming that it’s a translation of “שרות לאומי.” The term לאומי is ironic in that context because it really refers to the polity of Israel, while the state famously rejects citizens’ requests to register their nationality, their לאום, as Israeli. One would ask, which nation, which לאום, would Arab Israelis be serving? That’s why I put the word “national” in quotes in my earlier comment, by the way.

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    17. Fady K.

      @Carl & @Aaron: I would gladly write a post elaborating on this, hopefully soon.
      As for the irony, it is a good point, although some have called this type of service also “civil service”, but it is still managed by the ministry of defense.

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    18. Roger

      So Israel may become the first nation to adopt Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers as the basis of its constitution.

      More seriously, might the exclusion of Haredi actually help what passes for a left in electoral terms?

      The Arab parties are already treated as if they don’t exist anyway and conceivably UTJ and whatever the NRP calls itself these days might find themselves kicked out of the Knesset or reduced to just one or two MKs.

      And how many Shas voters are draft dodgers?

      Plus how on earth does this affect the 44% of women who are now getting exemptions on religious or marriage/parenthood grounds and all those Jewish immigrants who were too old or medically unfit to have been eligible to serve?

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    19. Fady,
      I see no reason why national service might not be directed to one’s home area, thereby providing a link to one’s own people/race; in upshot, the State would thereby have to distribute money a bit more equitably, that is, towards the Arab/Palestinian minority.
      Nor is it the case that military service cannot be for benefit of the minority group as such. One can envsion an enemy to the State of Israel which all could dislike. But not so much under an engrained two tier citizenship.
      While ethnic/racial categories will be with you indefinately, present policy overlays tiered citizenship on them. There is no reason in that case to exclude non-Jewish representation in the Knesset as a further consequence of their lower standing. Perhaps they need to be looked after by their superiors.
      Those Arab Israelis (or Palestinian Israelis self designated) who envision equal citizenship must admit as well there will be costs to this equality. I say this being absolutely no fan of conscription. But Arab Israelis can not (legitimately) demand equality while foregoing shared costs. To this end I suspect the religious exclusion (not so important in the army these days) also a violation of equal protection.

      Reply to Comment