In a piece recently published, Israel’s Ambassador to Washington Michael Oren rejected claims regarding anti-democratic trends in his country, and compared the legal status of Palestinians in the West Bank to that of American citizens in Washington DC and the U.S. territories. A response.
When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appointed Professor Michael Oren – a historian and researcher at the conservative Shalem institute, author of a popular book on the 1967 war – as his ambassador to Washington, he was probably hoping to capitalize on the latter’s name-recognition and credibility, especially with the political establishment and the Jewish elites. And indeed, as criticism of the occupation and of various Knesset legislative initiatives intensified, Prof. Oren has published numerous articles in leading publications, defending his government policies. In doing so, he has enjoyed the credibility of the scholar, while doing pure political advocacy work.
Ambassador Oren’s latest’s piece, titled “Israel’s Resilient Democracy,” is a good example of this fact. I decided to review some of the main problems with this text, due to the considerable attention it received, as well as the credibility people give to Professor Oren’s work.
Prof. Oren opens by citing some of the criticism over his government and its policies, before declaring his intention in writing this piece in an academic-like tone:
…are the allegations justified? Is Israeli democracy truly in jeopardy? Are basic liberties and gender equality — the cornerstones of an open society — imperiled? Will Israel retain its character as both a Jewish and a democratic state — a redoubt of stability in the Middle East and of shared values with the United States?
These questions will be examined in depth, citing comparative, historical, and contemporary examples. The answers will show that, in the face of innumerable obstacles, Israeli democracy remains remarkable, resilient, and stable.
So let’s go in depth.
One of Ambassador Oren’s major points is that democratic principles were upheld in Israel and minority rights were respected even in times of war. He writes:
Israeli democracy is distinguished not only by its receptiveness to public opinion but, perhaps most singularly, by its ability to thrive during conflict. Whether by suspending habeas corpus or imprisoning a suspected ethnic community, as the United States did in its Civil War and World War II, embattled democracies frequently take measures that depart from peacetime norms.
What Michael Oren doesn’t say is that Israel didn’t have to change its laws in wartime because it adopted upon inception – and still retains – the British Mandate’s emergency regulations, which allow the state to shut down newspapers, detain people in secrecy and/or without trial and much more at any given moment. The state of emergency was never lifted.
Furthermore, in the last 45 years (amounting to two-thirds of the country’s history), the Palestinian population in the occupied territories has been under military law, which grants the state even more power.
Israeli legal scholars I consulted on this matter tended to agree that habeas corpus, mentioned above, does exist under military occupation (due to the Supreme Court’s extended jurisdiction), but they also said that in the military court system, this fact is all but meaningless. Over the years, Israel has held between hundreds and thousands Palestinians under administrative detention at any moment (the current number is roughly 300), without trial. Detainees under administrative detention are brought before a military judge – an officer in uniform – only after seven days; the evidence against them is confidential and the hearing takes place behind closed doors. They are not tried, so they have no real way to defend themselves. At times, Israel also held Palestinians as “enemy combatants,” with even fewer rights. There is one person held with this status even now.
Even when Palestinians are brought to trial, the burden of proof resting on the prosecution in Israel’s military courts is extremely low, and the result is an astonishing 99.7 conviction rate. (It should be noted that the conviction rate in the Israeli criminal system is also in the high 90s; that’s not an excuse, but rather a different problem.) Again, these are not temporary measures, but the permanent system under which all Palestinians – including hundreds of minors – are tried. Their Jewish neighbors living in the settlements are tried in Israeli courts, where they enjoy full rights as citizens.
Professor Oren knows all this. He also knows, but somehow fails to mention, that upon its creation in 1948, Israel placed all of its Palestinian citizens under military rule, which was lifted only in December 1966. The six-month period that lasted from that date to the Six Day War comprises the only time in Israel’s history when a majority of the Arab population under its control was not subject to military rule.
“The litmus test for any democracy is its ability to protect the rights of its minorities,” writes Oren. But does subjecting millions of people – the largest minority under the state’s control – to the arbitrary and often abusive control of the army, and be that “the most moral army in the world,” constitute a success in this test?
The following paragraph is probably the most upsetting for me as an Israeli. Ambassador Oren writes:
In fact, Israel has tolerated acts that would be deemed treasonous in virtually any other democracy. Ahmed Tibi, who once advised PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat and recently praised Palestinian “martyrs” — a well-known euphemism for suicide bombers — serves as a member and deputy speaker of the Knesset.
Context: Knesset Member Ahmad Tibi (Raam-Taal / United Arab List) was recently accused by a rightwing watchdog group of giving a speech more than a year ago in which he praised suicide attacks on Israeli civilians. When the full video of the speech was released, it turned out that Tibi was referring to Palestinians who were killed in protests and to civilians who lost their lives. The version released by the watchdog group was heavily edited to create a false impression.
As a result, journalist Ben-Dror Yemini of Maariv and The Jerusalem Post, a well-known critic of the Arab Knesset members and one of those who broke the shahid (martyr) story, retracted his accusation both on his blog and in the printed paper. Yemini even went on Israeli public radio, saying: “I admit I was wrong. We owe an apology to [MK] Tibi.”
The leading Israeli paper Yedioth Ahronoth also published an apology for running this story in its printed edition. (correction/update: Yedioth apologized for the same accusation but on a different occasion, not the affair mentioned here. Mr. Tibi claimed that Dan Margalit, senior pundit for Israel Hayom, also backed down from these accusations, but I wasn’t able to find a link )
Not only did MK Tibi never praise suicide bombing, he is extremely consistent in denouncing the killing of Israeli civilians. Tibi is also a passionate critic of Holocaust denial in the Arab world, and can often be heard saying that “there is nothing more immoral than Holocaust denial.” There are two options here: Either Prof. Oren knowingly repeated a blood libel against the deputy speaker of his own Knesset, or he failed to fact check the issue before repeating those accusations. Both cases say something of the nature of Prof. Oren’s work, and demonstrate how easy it is to demonize Palestinians in Israel today.
In the very same paragraph, Oren writes:
Israeli Arab parties routinely call for dismantling the Jewish state, yet only one party was ever barred from Israeli elections: Kach, a Jewish party that preached hatred of Arabs.
So many problems in one sentence: Israeli Arab parties call for a “state for all its citizens,” meaning equal rights for everyone; “dismantling the Jewish state” is not on the platform, to the best of my knowledge. And there is a difference between the two positions. Second, an Arab party called Al-Arth was in fact prohibited from participating in the elections to the 6th Knesset (a famous case and a strange factual omission, coming from a historian). It is also worth noting that Israel’s Central Elections Committee disqualified Arab parties Balad and Raam-Taal from participating in the last elections; the decision had to be overruled by the High Court. At the same time, the committee has stopped disqualifying former Kach members from participating in the elections, and one of them – Michael Ben Ari – is even serving in the current Knesset. These facts are omitted from Ambassador Oren’s article.
The main rhetorical method Ambassador Oren uses is citing one or two pieces of criticism against Israel – usually placing them out of context, ignoring the heart of the matter – and then responding, preferably by citing praise Israeli democracy won in the past.
Take, for example, the part in the piece is titled “Democracy’s Litmus.” Oren deals here with two issues, and briefly touches on a third. He writes about (a) the NGO bill intended to heavily tax the support of foreign governments to local human rights organizations, (b) the issue of sexual equality in Israel and (c) the infamous boycott law.
Issue B is a red herring. Its sole intent is to divert attention from more structural faults. Nobody seriously argues that the (very real) problem of sexual inequality, evident especially in ultra-religious circles, is what lies behind the recent criticism against Israel. The question marks around Israel’s democracy have to do with the occupation and the status of the Palestinian minority. By “answering” the criticism regarding sexual equality, Ambassador Orem tries to blur the center of the debate, and makes the people voicing concerns – or criticism – look less serious, if not completely ignorant.
Regarding the NGO bill, Oren writes:
European governments contribute more to NGOs in Israel than to similar groups in all other Middle Eastern states combined. Eighty percent of those funds are directed toward political organizations that often oppose the government’s policies or, as in the case of Adalah and Badil, deny Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state.
The first figure Ambassador Oren cites is an oral estimate given to a journalist by rightwing professor Gerald Steinberg, head of the highly politicized group NGO Monitor. The second number – the 80 percent allegedly directed at opposition organizations – simply does not appear in the text Ambassador Oren is linking to, so there is no way of verifying it. Even so, Ambassador Oren conveniently forgets the important part: European support for government-sponsored Israeli institutions, such as universities, exceeds the support for human rights NGOs. The support for several NGOs is part of an engagement with Israeli civil society, from which all Israelis benefit.
In all likelihood, this – and not “the keen debate” regarding the law Oren mentions – was the reason Netanyahu froze the bill. According to some sources who were involved in the behind-the-scenes discussion, foreign diplomats made it clear to the prime minister that if the bill was to pass, support for all civil society in Israel, and not just the human rights NGOs, would likely suffer.
As for the third issue – the boycott law – Ambassador Oren abandons the attempt to find equivalents in other Western democracies. After all, even the Knesset’s own research institute didn’t come up with any. He concludes the debate with a remark (hope?) that “the Supreme Court may yet pass judgment on the bill.”
Ambassador Oren also writes:
To call Israeli democracy into question because of one suggested bill that never made it into law is unjust. Democracies consider many laws, some of them imperfect, without compromising their democratic character. In Israel, as in America, legislation is tabled, deliberated, and often rejected without impugning the democratic process. In fact, that is the democratic process.
It’s not “one bill.” The erosion of democratic rights of Israeli citizens (Palestinian residents, it should be remembered, never had any) has to do with many recent and not-so-recent initiatives: The boycott law, mentioned above, which limits effective political opposition to the occupation; the Nakba law, intended to prevent Palestinians and Palestinian institutions from remembering their national catastrophe; the segregated communities law, allowing small municipalities to reject applicants based on race and religion; the legislation in process regarding the Supreme Court, meant to limit juridical supervision of government actions and Knesset legislation; and the Citizenship Law, forbidding Arab citizens from bringing Palestinian spouses to live with them in Israel, and ultimately breaking up families.
This partial list is mostly from the recent Knesset. It doesn’t include the structural discrimination of the Arab minority in citizenship procedures or in acquisition of land – for example the fact that the JNF, a quasi-government agency, controls 13 percent of the land in Israel and leases it only to Jews.
Regardless of all of Ambassador Oren’s mistakes and omissions, by discussing one law, one bill, and one unrelated issue, he is not engaged in an effort to answer real concerns over Israeli policies, but quite the opposite: He is part of an effort to hide, dismiss or blur them.
“Anomaly or Non-Democracy” is the title of the part in Oren’s piece dealing with the occupation. Israel’s ambassador to Washington opens with a quote from Peter Beinart, before moving on to his response (the fact that Beinart got the Jewish and Israeli mainstream to discuss the occupation again is perhaps his greatest achievement):
“Israel,” argues Peter Beinart, “is forging … an entity of dubious democratic legitimacy” that bars “West Bank Palestinians … from citizenship and the right to vote in the state that controls their lives.” Beinart’s reasoning is based on the assumption that the West Bank Palestinians are denied democratic rights, legal recourse, or any say in their future, and that Israel has taken no serious measures to facilitate Palestinian statehood.
In reality, the majority of the Palestinians in the West Bank reside in areas administered by the Palestinian Authority. Together with the Palestinians living under direct Israeli control, they vote in the Palestinian elections. These were scheduled for January 2010, but have been delayed by the Palestinian leadership — not by Israel. The Palestinian inhabitants of East Jerusalem, for their part, have also voted in the Palestinian elections.
Similarly, the legal situation in the West Bank cannot simply be reduced to democracy or non-democracy. Palestinian law applies to those Palestinians living under Palestinian Authority auspices. In Israeli-controlled areas and for Palestinians arrested for security offenses, Israeli military law, based on British and Jordanian precedents, is enforced. Such a patchwork might confound any democracy…
The denial of citizenship and all subsequent rights to Palestinians is not an “assumption” but a reality. Had Oren provided the entire story for his examples, this would have been clear.
As Oren says, Palestinians did get to vote for their elected council. International monitors stated that the procedures were fair and clean, but Israel didn’t recognize Hamas’ victory and imprisoned its elected officials. This is the reason elections weren’t held again – Israel will not let one of the two major parties participate. Regardless of what we might think of Hamas and the way to deal with it, the elections that took place and those that didn’t were the proof that Israel has the final – one might say only – word in the procedure. If this is a democracy, Ambassador Oren and the rest of the world have very different views of the word.
Furthermore, the president of the Palestinian Authority holds the title of an international leader but not the authority of so much as a United States mayor. Israel collects taxes for him (and keeps the money when it doesn’t like his attitude); Israel controls the territory between and around Palestinian cities and has the final word on every road that Palestinians want to built; Israel invades Palestinian towns and villages and carries out arrests; Israel controls the resources, and even electromagnetic frequencies. The PA was established under the Oslo Accords as a temporary body for the duration of the negotiations on the final agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, which were supposed to end in 1999. The sole sovereign in the West Bank is Israel. Palestinians have no say over their future. Correction: They have no say over their present.
Yet Ambassador Oren writes:
The existence of partially democratic enclaves within a democratic system does not necessarily discredit it. Residents of Washington, D.C., are taxed without representation, while those in the U.S. territories — Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands — cannot vote in presidential elections. Anomalies exist in every democracy, and Israel’s is not voided by the situation in the West Bank.
I am not very fond of comparing countries to one another, let alone Israel and the United States – which are different in almost every way, from political culture to legal system to civil society tradition – but this is the analogy that lies at the heart of Ambassador’s Oren’s text, which intends to portray Israel as a tiny America, a bastion of civil rights in a hostile and strange environment.
So, following the ambassador’s suggestion, let’s imagine the Palestinians as the equivalent of American citizens living in Washington DC or in U.S. territories. But let’s take this analogy all the way: Imagine that those citizens are under military control, where no warrant is needed to invade their houses at night and arrest them. Let’s imagine that 7 percent of all prisoners are currently held without trial for months and years. That everyone, including children, are tried by military tribunals. That complaints of torture – there have been more than 700 of these in the previous decade – could be sealed at the order of an internal security officer.
Let’s imagine those citizens surrounded by walls and fences and a system of dozens of roadblocks, some of them permanent with many appearing and disappearing every day, between the various suburbs and towns, so a route that could take 10 minute to drive regularly turns into a journey of hours. Let’s imagine them unable to relocate or travel abroad without a special permit, notoriously hard to obtain, from the military authorities.
And on top of this, they can’t vote.
And now let’s imagine this unique situation applied to a third of the population under the United State’s control – say 100 million – for two-thirds of the country’s history, meaning over 150 years. This would be the proper analogy, if we were to follow Ambassador Oren’s logic. It doesn’t sound very democratic.
There are many other problems, half-truths and misrepresentations in Ambassador’s Oren text. I didn’t touch here on his interpretation of the collapse of the diplomatic process (“Prime Minister Netanyahu has made the two-state solution the cornerstone of his diplomatic platform” – seriously?), nor his claims regarding the state of the Christian minority under Israeli control (see more here). In one of my future posts I might touch on the implications of some of the deeper arguments he makes – for example Israel being a unique historic case and at the same time a “classic” Western democracy.
Except for the story involving MK Tibi, in which the ambassador to Washington helped spread a slanderous lie about his own parliament’s deputy speaker, one could argue that Ambassador Michael Oren is simply doing the job he was hired to do. Yet this much should be clear: Professor Michael Oren would not have dared to submit his Foreign Policy article to a proper academic review. It is a propaganda piece in the service of the occupation – not “analysis” – and it should be treated as such.