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The occupation is destroying Israelís democracy regardless of what kind of spin is put on it

By Alon Ben-Meir - posted Friday, 19 May 2023


It is sad and bewildering, albeit not surprising, how many Israelis completely distort the nature and the ultimate objective of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The reactions to my article from April 30, "An Occupying Power Cannot Be a Beacon of Democracy," by many well-versed individuals, reveal how misguided they are and how comfortable they feel about their distorted views about the occupation, which they have embraced for more than five decades. What is extremely disturbing is that these views are prevalent among Jews in and outside Israel, which has allowed successive Israeli governments to maintain the occupation for 56 years with near-impunity on the basis of several groundless arguments.

To demonstrate how absurd some of these arguments are, I selected six comments out of many which illuminate the irrationality and false equivalence they resort to in justifying their positions.

Before I provide counter arguments, I want first to briefly reestablish the premise on which my article was based. First, I argued that an occupying power-Israel-cannot be a beacon of democracy as long as it remains an occupying power. That successive right-wing Israeli governments have systematically been misleading and brainwashing the public to justify the occupation on the grounds of national security. That they have methodically been portraying the Palestinians as an irredeemable foe, while engaging in misleading public narratives to keep the Israeli public minimally informed about the ruthlessness of the occupation. That they are portraying the occupation as central to keeping the Palestinians at bay while stamping out their aspiration to establish an independent state of their own. That they have been promoting the notion that the Palestinians are bent on destroying Israel even if they establish their own state. And finally, that they have been normalizing the occupation of the West Bank as if it were simply an extension of Israel proper.

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Given that the concept of democracy plays a significant role in these arguments, it is best to define it. Democracy, literally meaning "rule by the people," empowers individuals to exercise political control over the form and functions of their government. While democracies may vary in form, they all share certain features in common, including competitive elections, freedom of expression, and protection of individual civil liberties and human rights. Ultimately, democracy is a system of government based on the belief in freedom and equality between people. The concept of democracy derives its moral strength and legitimacy from two key principles. First is individual autonomy, the idea that no one should be subject to rules which have been imposed by others. People should be able to exercise self-determination and control over their own lives. As the philosopher Alain Badiou puts it, democracy is a political system that "does not prohibit or restrain, or not excessively." The second principle is equality, the idea that everyone should be granted an equal opportunity to influence the decisions that affect people in society.

The following are the six contrarian arguments and my counterarguments, which I believe shed important light at the extent of the absurdities which much of the Israeli public and some diaspora Jews invoke in making their case in favor of continuing the occupation.

"Judaea and Samaria belong to Israel in accordance with the San Remo treaty. Israel is not an occupying power."

The San Remo Conference, which was held April 19-26, 1920, between Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan, with the United States as a neutral observer, established that Palestine would be placed under British Mandatory rule, specifically stating "The Mandatory will be responsible for…. the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…"

The critic, however conveniently ignored the second part of the sentence, which continues, "…it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine…."

Moreover, the critic also chose to disregard the fact that the UNSC passed Resolution 194 in 1947 (the Partition Plan) that called for the establishment of a Jewish state and a Palestinian state. The legitimacy that was accorded to the establishment of Israel by the UNSC is exactly the same that was accorded to the Palestinians. Dismissing Resolution 194 and selectively citing only a part of the San Remo agreement is gravely misleading and harmful as it does nothing but obscure the truth and help to prolong the conflict at a terrible political, economic, and psychological cost for both sides.

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"I think we can all agree that peace will be good for Israeli democracy, but it's simply not true that an occupying power can't be a beacon of democracy. It can and often has been. Britain conquered and occupied many countries and not only remained a beacon of democracy. Its empire was instrumental in its spreading of democracy. India and many other countries wouldn't be democracies today except for this. Same with America's occupation of Japan and Germany. Same probably with the democracy and empire of classical Athens. As I remember it, Lewis Samuel Feuer gave some solid analysis on this in his book on imperialism."

An occupying power can indeed be a beacon of democracy, provided that such a power promulgates the principles of democracy in the country it occupies and subsequently leaves it to be governed by its own representative government. Unlike Israel, however, neither Britain nor the US are building settlements, annexing Indian, Japanese, or German territory, or applying two sets of rules-one for the US or British citizens with all the rights and privileges, and another set of rules akin to marshal laws to govern these countries' respective citizens.

If Britain still occupied India, or if the US similarly still occupied Japan and Germany and treated them the way Israel is treating the Palestinians next door, neither the US nor Britain would be considered democracies. Citing these examples by this critic is a fundamentally false equivalence. Indeed, no country can be a democracy when it continues to occupy other people, especially when these people (the Palestinians) live on a contiguous land mass with Israel and even share the same territory, with hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews living in their midst in the West Bank, enjoying all the rights and privileges of Israeli citizenship while the Palestinians are subjugated to harsh military rules as Israel imposes in the West Bank.

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About the Author

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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