The Middle East Channel

‘Tahrirization’ and the state of Israeli democracy

The ongoing political upheaval that began in Tunisia and successfully spread to Egypt and elsewhere in the region reflects a growing desire among the peoples of the Middle East to live in free and democratic societies. After decades of suffering under non-democratic rule, they have finally begun to emerge from state-administered repression imposed by governments ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

The ongoing political upheaval that began in Tunisia and successfully spread to Egypt and elsewhere in the region reflects a growing desire among the peoples of the Middle East to live in free and democratic societies. After decades of suffering under non-democratic rule, they have finally begun to emerge from state-administered repression imposed by governments backed by the United States.

The rest of the Arab peoples also hope to achieve freedom and break from the confines of totalitarian states. Some Arab states are, in fact, even more problematic than Egypt and Tunisia. Their citizens deserve freedom and democratic reform, too.

Recent developments provide a challenge to President Obama and American policy makers, but they also offer an extraordinary opportunity to revise America’s decades-old, failed policies in the Middle East and to stand clearly on the right side of history. In the streets of Cairo, demonstrators asked why the American government didn’t speak out earlier, more forcefully and unequivocally on the side of those brave young Egyptians who demanded their rights and are now raucously celebrating the departure of President Hosni Mubarak. We all admire those young leaders in Tahrir Square. From one side of the Middle East to the other, we hope that “Tahrirization” will spread to other Arab countries – and to Palestinians seeking their rights in Israel.

Government officials of America’s other key ally in the region, Israel, look at the wave of popular uprisings and are very worried. Israeli officials frequently boast of being the “only democracy in the Middle East” — what they don’t say is that they would prefer to keep it that way.

While U.S.-sponsored authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Tunisia slip out of America’s geopolitical orbit and towards more open and democratic societies, Israel is moving in the opposite direction, as its politics veer to the extreme right and anti-Arab racism and intolerance for dissent increase steadily. Israel’s foreign minister wants Palestinian citizens to swear loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state; rabbis on the government payroll call on Jews not to rent property to Palestinians; Israeli schoolteachers complain of rampant and virulent anti-Arab racism amongst their students; new laws to prevent Palestinians from living in so-called community villages are being approved. In short, rights in Israel are being reserved for Jews only.

Unsurprisingly, even for Israeli Jews, democratic freedoms are eroding at an alarming rate. Israeli human rights groups and left-leaning NGOs are under attack from right-wing activists and the most extreme, racist government in Israel’s history. The Israeli Knesset will soon open an investigation into the funding of Israeli human rights groups, part of a wider campaign to suppress their work and prevent them from documenting Israeli human rights abuses. The political climate in Israel today resembles the Jim Crow South in the 1950s coupled with the McCarthyism of the time. Conscientious people are refusing to participate in these witch hunts.

Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories suffer many of the same injustices as the peoples of totalitarian regimes and more: torture and abuse at the hands of a repressive state security apparatus; bombardment, white phosphorus, and assassination; systemic inequality, both racial and economic; lack of political freedoms; poverty — in our case the result of deliberate Israeli government policies. And the same tear gas canisters, made in the U.S., are fired at demonstrators in Cairo, Tunis and the West Bank. Palestinian demonstrators in Israel are shot in the streets.

As Arab popular movements strive to establish democracy and Israeli officials move to constrain civil liberties, it is increasingly clear that calling Israel a democracy is a misnomer. At best, it is an ethnocracy, where only Jews enjoy the full rights and privileges of citizenship. Today, there is a de facto, virtual caste system within the territories that Israel controls, with Israel’s Jewish settlers at the top and Muslim and Christian Palestinians in the Occupied Territories at the bottom. Increasingly, people around the world are recognizing this situation for what it is: apartheid. Former Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak have both warned of an apartheid future if the status quo is maintained, and pro-Israel columnist Thomas Friedman recently did the same.

Israeli leaders, having failed to use the 30 years of cold peace with Egypt to negotiate Israeli-Palestinian peace, continue to support the least possible change to the Egyptian status quo, afraid of a future where Egyptian civil society restructures its government, external relations, and dealings with the Palestinians. Israel and the US revere so-called “stability” at the expense of peoples denied their rights in Egypt, the Palestinian territories, and Israel itself. This kind of false stability, reminiscent of Cold War era South Africa, should be changed.

Unlike some in the Knesset, I do not believe that there is a threat of another Egyptian-Israeli war. The real danger for Israel is that with democratic change, Arab leaders will be far more likely to listen to their people and demand that Israel adhere to international law vis-à-vis the Palestinians. That would be a tremendous development.

President Obama needs to seize this post-Mubarak moment and break with America’s discredited, Israel-first regional approach that has resulted in misguided American support for autocrats. But in re-thinking how it relates to Arab dictators, the Obama administration should also examine the dangers caused by a misshapen Israeli “democracy” trampling the rights of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and Israel alike. Now is the time for a fundamentally new American approach to the Middle East as a whole, predicated on noble American values of freedom and democracy.

Ahmad Tibi is a Palestinian citizen of Israel and is deputy speaker of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

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