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Israel: A Democratic State?

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The issue of the democratic character of Israel is not only challenging from an academic perspective but also of high political relevance. During the period of the Cold War, Western support for Israel was scarcely contested as the country was widely perceived as an indispensable bulwark against Soviet influence in the Middle East. However, in the 21st century, the strategic value of Israel for Western foreign policies toward the Middle East has become disputed. Renowned scholars of International Relations such as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt (2007), whose policy advice is based on the idea of strategic Realpolitik, have even gone so far as to contend that US support for Israel counters American interests. In the light of a less obvious or even counterproductive strategic value of Israel for Western foreign policy interests, bonds with Israel that are based on shared values as expressed in notions such as the American “special relationship” with Israel (Reich 1996) and the German commitment that the existence of Israel is a “reason of state for Germany” have gained in significance in the political discourse. However, due to its prolonged occupation of Palestinian and Syrian territories, Israel’s human rights record does not qualify as an asset for Western claims that support of Israel is based on the pursuit of value-based foreign policies toward the Middle East. Thus, the idea of supporting Israel as a befriended democracy in the authoritarian environment of Arab states has become critical for the justification of Western pro-Israeli policies. The claim that Israel is a democratic state also plays a crucial role in the attempts of Western states to contain Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS): The German parliament stressed in a resolution in May 2019 that Israel is a Jewish democratic state while attempting to delegitimize BDS, a social movement which, in the face of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, campaigns for sanctioning Israeli companies and institutions.

According to the Freedom House index, which is commonly taken as a reference source for assessing political systems as democratic or undemocratic, Israel is – and always has been – a democracy. Although Israel’s score of 79 is well below that of the three best performers (Finland, Norway, and Sweden, with a score of 100), it is better rated on the basis of political rights and civil liberties than some other major democracies, for instance India and Brazil (whose score is 77 and 78, respectively) and is listed among the eighty-eight countries that Freedom House evaluated as free in 2018. Thus, the question arises as to what the arguments of those who reject that Israel is a democracy are. The analyses of some publicists who deny that Israel is democratic is based on ad-hoc criteria that do not match scientific standards. This applies, for example, to Odeh Bisharat (2018), who claims that Jordan rather than Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East because “its king is more democratic”. Yet, there are also authors who attempt to prove the non-existence of an Israeli democracy using scholarly means. Recently, most prominent among them is Ilan Pappe, whose analysis centres around the idea that “the litmus test of any democracy is the level of tolerance it is willing to extend towards the minorities living in it.” He concludes that, “in this respect, Israel falls far short of being a true democracy.” Pappe actually shows that the State of Israel systematically discriminates against one-fifth of its citizens, i.e. those Arab inhabitants of the British Mandate of Palestine and their descendants who were not expelled or did not flee during the 1947–49 Palestine War.

The Debate on Israel as an Ethnic Democracy

There is a sophisticated debate surrounding Sammy Smooha’s model of “ethnic democracy” and its application to Israel, which was intensively conducted around the millennium and may help to shed light on the disputed issue of Israel’s character as a democratic state. Smooha (1997, 2002) explicates that Israel, albeit not qualifying as a liberal democracy, is still a democracy, “though not a first-rate Western democracy” (Smooha 2002: 496). Israel is not a liberal democracy as its Palestinian citizens do not enjoy equal rights. Rather, the state, which is “based on Jewish and Zionist hegemony and on structural subordination of the Arab minority” (Smooha 2002: 497) systematically discriminates against them.........

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