The Results Are In: Israel Is an Authoritarian State and We Can No Longer Deny It

Tuesday, Israel went to the polls to decide the future of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling government. The results are clear: Netanyahu will once again be able to form a right-wing government and will retain control of Israel's foreign policy.

In the days leading up to the election, Netanyahu disavowed his brief flirtation with the idea of a Palestinian state, and his party used Israel's small Arab citizenry as a foil to turn out far-right voters. He avoided his defeat at the hands of the centrist Zionist Union by declaring his commitment to permanent occupation of Palestinian lands, which if you'll remember has been the official position of his political party the Likud since its inception.

These results should not surprise anyone who is acquainted with the realities of Israeli society today. Israel is not barely off course, or the victim of a late right-wing wave, as many liberal zionist supporters of the state allege. Its population today is deeply authoritarian and fearful, and as we are increasingly witnessing, those who are suffering as a result are not just the 4.5 million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank – who despite having their lives controlled by the Israeli military, had no vote in yesterday's election -- but Israel's own Arab citizenry.

Israel is also home to some of the world's most persistent human rights workers, who risk total alienation from the wider society to document abuses. One organization is the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), which is more or less Israel's version of the ACLU. In 2007, they polled Israelis on various racial attitudes. They found that 50 percent of Israeli Jews say they would never live in the same home as an Arab, or allow their children befriend Arabs. In 2010, a follow-up poll found that 56 percent of Israeli high schoolers favor barring Arabs from the Israeli Knesset (their parliament); among religious Israelis that number rose to 82 percent. During the summer war in Gaza, when Israel's image plummeted overseas, few Israelis dared to oppose Netanyahu's policy. Polls from reputable outlets found that somewhere between 86 percent and 95 percent of Israelis supported the bombing of Gaza, and only between 3 to 4 percent of Israelis believed the Israeli military used excessive force.

This is not the behavior of a liberal democracy. These are all the signs of a country that is submerged in authoritarianism, and which is dismissive of both international law and global public opinion. Netanyahu is not a bug in Israeli society, he is a feature.

See No Evil

Years ago, I worked at the Center for American Progress's weblog, ThinkProgress. Around the summer of 2011, our writing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – most of it geared at pressuring the U.S. government to compel Israel to seek a two-state solution – caught the eye of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the influential Israel lobby group. AIPAC had meetings with higher-ups at the organization to convey its displeasure over a few posts we had made putting forth a few different ideas.

One of the things they most specifically did not want to see was any reference to the idea that a two-state solution was not possible or becoming not possible due to Israeli settlement policy. They very specifically objected to us quoting CBS News's Bob Simon's warning that Israel was heading towards “apartheid” without a resolution to the Palestinian issue. It was made clear to us that this was just not acceptable language by AIPAC's standards. Some at ThinkProgress worried that we would no longer be able to write about the issue, period, if AIPAC complaints persisted.

Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly depending on how sincere you believe AIPAC's advocacy to be, the organization has nothing to say about Netanyahu's public disavowal of the two-state solution. And it of course has nothing to say about what a proper word would be for keeping millions of Palestinians under military rule while they land is gobbled up by settlers, something that would not be happening if they were Jewish, under which they would instantly get Israeli citizenship.

Heads In The Sand

AIPAC isn't alone in its apprehension to talk about what Israel has become. American politicians, civil society organizations, and thought leaders are all denying reality. Despite their own professed belief in the so-called “two state solution” – a Palestinian state – the reactions to Netanyahu winning re-election on a platform of permanent occupation have ranged from muted to absurd:

  • House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi: “The people of Israel have spoken. I respect the results that they have produced. I think that what they have produced will be a continued lively discussion about the peace process.” In a statement Wednesday, she said that the US-Israel relationship “doesn't depend on personalities. It's about values that we share” (she did not specify whether racism or permanent disenfranchisement of minorities is one of those values).

  • Leading Pro-Israel Organization Anti-Defamation League: “We extend our congratulations to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud Party for their strong showing in these elections, and wish the prime minister well as he moves to build a governing coalition” (they did include two sentences regretting “divisive statements by candidates”).

  • Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush: Despite the fact that both his father and brother publicly clashed with Israel over its refusal to return land to Palestinians, Bush tweeted out a simple statement in response to the election: “Congratulations to Prime Minister @netanyahu on his re-election. He's a true leader who will continue to keep Israel strong and secure.”

  • Leading Pro-Israel Organization American Jewish Committee: The American Jewish Committee took Netanyahu's racist campaign as an opportunity to...defend Israel against charges of racism. In a tweet, it pointed to the fact that Israel has an Arab member on its Supreme Court to mockingly ask, “And some say apartheid?”

  • Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO): Polis, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, chose the See No Evil approach, tweeting only of Israel that that “we celebrate their vibrant democracy in the middle east.” When progressive Jewish activist Daniel Seradski, who himself once lived in Israel, objected to the characterization because occupied Palestinians do not have voting rights, Polis mocked him.

  • The White House: The Obama administration put out a tortured statement trying to balance its total support for Israel with the fact that Israel's government has a position on the Palestinian issue directly opposite of that of the United States.  “We want to congratulate the Israeli people for the democratic process of the election they engaged in with all of the parties that engage in that election. As you know the hard work of coalition building now begins. Sometimes that takes a couple of weeks and we're going to give space to the formation of that coalition government and we're not going to weigh in one way of the other except to say that the United States and Israel have a historic and close relationship and that will continue going forward.”

  • Pro-Israel, Anti-Occupation Organization J Street: J Street, a centrist organization created to promote the idea of two states, tried to balance dismay at Netanyahu's re-election with trying to assure its backers that Israel is still worth supporting. In an email to supporters, it blasted Netanyahu's “outright rejection of the two-state solution,” but also lamented “Israel's growing isolation” and tried to claim that Netanyahu did not receive a “broad mandate” – feeding into the liberal Zionist narrative that there are major Israeli parties or significant segments of its public that support freedom for the Palestinians.

What all of these statements have in common is that not a single one is calling for the United States to shift any actual policy towards Israel. Every year, American taxpayers give over $3 billion in military aid to Israel. At the United Nations, our diplomatic staff block resolutions critical of Israel. Although the far-right paints Obama as an anti-Israel icon, he has not even taken the modest step of abstaining from a United Nations vote to allow a condemnation of Israel, as his predecessor George W. Bush did. He has not threatened to freeze aid to Israel, as GOP President George HW Bush did, and he did not freeze any arms shipments to Israel, as GOP President Ronald Reagan did.

A Coming Change

The reason why there is such uniform support for Israel within our political system today has little to do with conviction on behalf of politicians. Republican pols are responding to a Christian evangelical movement that has tied itself so close to Israel that its voters prefer Benjamin Netanyahu to all of their actual presidential nominees; the Democrats, in the words of one former Clinton staffer, fear that certain pro-Israel Jewish donors will stop giving to their party if they change policy.

But neither of these forces – evangelical votes or pro-Israel money – are particularly powerful when stacked up against other political forces in America: Wall street, defense contractors, Big Ag, or the pharmaceutical industries. No, the pro-Israel lobby is only more powerful than the one group it has to be more powerful than: the Palestinians.

In some ways, that power is finally beginning to wane. Polling done over the summer found that young Americans 2 to 1 found Israel's war in Gaza unjustified; rising demographics of young people, Hispanics, and African Americans are turning against Israel in large numbers. And particularly younger Jews are abandoning organizations like the influential AIPAC for the centrist J Street and left-wing Jewish Voice for Peace. Against such large shifts in American public opinion, the traditional Israel Lobby – itself dragged far to the right by organizations like the Emergency Committee for Israel, whose clumsy stunts have badly harmed the country's reputation – is ultimately weakened.

Time To Dump The Special Relationship

The key ingredient that remains missing is leadership. Going forward, the Palestinians are likely to continue to take their case directly to the United Nations, demanding that they be given a state as is their right under international law. Failing that, they are likely to give up on statehood altogether, and instead pursue a South Africa-style campaign for voting rights within Israel. This latter step has little support among major Palestinian factions or the international community today, but could quickly gain traction in the absence of an alternative.

It is the first course of action – a UN vote – that Obama could, single-handedly, change the course of history. While many Members of Congress will continue to pander to the Israel Lobby, Obama has no more elections, and Congress has no constitutional authority to dictate votes at the United Nations. If the Palestinians once again return to the United Nations, Obama can instruct Ambassador Samantha Power to support their bid for statehood, which would legally place Israel in a position not only where it is occupying a stateless people but where it is essentially controlling a sovereign state against its will – lining the path to sanctions from the international community if it refuses to remove its settlers and military from Palestinian territories.

If he chooses to do so, Obama will first have to discard the fiction that small changes in the composition in the Israeli government will change its behavior towards the Palestinians. Israel is not sincere in its negotiations with the Palestinians – you cannot bargain over the size of a colleague's share of a  pizza while devouring it. It's time the United States, and its international allies dispense with the idea that Israel is a liberal democracy, and start treating it as an authoritarian state that has waged a 50-year occupation deserves to be treated: with serious pressure designed at compelling it to comply with international law.

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