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What happens when the mask of ‘Israeli democracy’ falls?

November 30, 2023 at 2:45 pm

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits military troops in the northern Gaza Strip on the third day of the ongoing humanitarian pause between Israel and Hamas in Gaza City, Gaza on November 26, 2023 [Israeli Government (GPO) – Anadolu Agency]

The Israeli propaganda machine has been working overtime in its effort to portray to the world a narrative of its own victimhood, tirelessly seeking global backing by depicting Israel’s enemies as inhumane ‘people of the dark’. Whilst portraying the 7 October surprise Palestinian resistance infiltration into Israel as a strain on the state, it has skilfully notched up propaganda victories by eagerly seizing the opportunity to conceal its authoritarianism and maintain the false claim that Israel is the only liberal democracy in the Middle East.

Despite groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch declaring Israel an apartheid state, Western leaders, coupled with the media, refuse to shed light on the systematic, industrialised and bureaucratic oppression of indigenous Palestinians. In fact, they do not just refuse to shed light on apartheid, they outright deny it.

In March 2023 for example, former UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverley signed an agreement to oppose the use of the word “apartheid” to describe the Israeli treatment of Palestinians, and even accused International institutions of “anti-Israeli bias” if they used the term.

Cleverley only needed to look at Israeli officials and leading figures from the occupation state to recognise how untenable his claim is. A former head of the Mossad intelligence agency was the latest in a long list to declare that Israel is imposing a form of apartheid on the Palestinians. He joins a growing number of prominent Israelis who have compared the occupation of the West Bank to South Africa’s defunct system of racial oppression.

World renowned historian Yuval Noah Harari, a lecturer at the Hebrew University in occupied Jerusalem, has also described the situation as a form of apartheid. Last year, Harari commented on what he called the ‘three class solution’ that the Israeli regime has implemented as a way to create judicial distance between Jews and Arabs, which then legislates a difference in rights between the groups. The result is a form of racial domination and superiority that oppresses Palestinians under an apartheid system.

Sai Englert, a leading expert in Zionism and the political economy of the Middle East, asserts in his book ‘Settler Colonialism: An Introduction, that indigenous Palestinians have been massively excluded from the economy. Englert explains that the Israeli apartheid system, whilst not based on indigenous exploitation, partakes in the elimination of Palestinans from the regional and global economy.

The illusion of Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East nevertheless continues to persist, even though the current far-right government is hell-bent on razing to the ground key pillars of democracy: the separation of powers. Prior to 7 October, Israel saw one million citizens protesting against the judicial reforms that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was so eager to pass in an attempt to consolidate his power. The reforms are anti-democratic, and – if implemented – would complete Israel’s inevitable drift towards authoritarianism.

The reforms, still in their early stages, have been side-lined by Netanyahu due to the war against Hamas. The genocidal war on Gaza is Netanyahu’s only hope of remaining in power and maintaining any legitimacy amongst the Israeli public. Like the administration of George W Bush after 9/11, Netanyahu has adopted the classic modern strategy of every endangered right-wing oligarchy: divert mass discontent into nationalism, an idea famously echoed by Anatol Lieven.

Netanyahu aims to leverage the war to boost his image among Israelis, portraying himself as their saviour and hero—the protector who rescued “God’s chosen people” from terrorists. The question remains: Can the Israelis who have opposed judicial reform resist Netanyahu and his far-right coalition members if they deliver victory? Will the Israelis have the stamina to resist the Netanyahu led authoritarian drift?

READ: Netanyahu: ‘Only I can block a Palestinian state’

It also remains to be seen whether the unequivocal support that Israel receives from the US will remain the same if Israel transitions into a fully-fledged authoritarian regime. That said, when has US support ever depended on moral and democratic considerations? The US is expert in turning a friend into a foe. Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussain was the hero that helped them against their Iranian foe Ayatollah Khomeni. But after his usefulness expired, Saddam suddenly became an evil dictator for deviating from the US plans for the Middle East.

A consistent trend emerges: prior to 2003, Turkiye stood as the primary importer of US arms, some of which were implicated in atrocities against its Kurdish population. This information, however, was not prominently featured in the US media until 2003 when the Turkish government denied permission for attacks on Iraq through their borders. Following this refusal, reports surfaced of Kurds disappearing and villages being set ablaze by the Turkish forces. Human rights abuses, once overlooked while Turkiye fuelled the US arms economy, became a focal point of concern when the US sought passage into Iraq.

The US has a history of supporting authoritarian regimes that are friendly to US domestic and foreign interests. The Somoza regime in Nicaragua, the Shah of Iran and even Putin during the administration of Bush, to name a few from a very long list.

The support for Israel, especially during what many consider to be a genocide in Gaza, has already stained the Biden administration and the US government as a whole. The US is aware that the majority of the international community does not support its current position on the crisis.

Western nations often highlight Israel’s purported democracy to justify their support for the state. The narrative frequently emphasises Israel’s potential to bring peace and democratic values to an otherwise unstable region. Eventually, the West may come to recognise the flaws in such beliefs, and attempts to sell such myths to the public are likely to fail.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.