Israel is often heralded as the only democracy in the Middle East, which unfortunately says more about the deplorable state of people power in the region than about the liberal character of the Jewish state. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) 2010Democracy Index, there are worldwide only 26 “full democracies.”
Defined as a “flawed democracy” at rank 37, Israel is the region’s leading representative — it should be noted however, that the index does not take into consideration Israel’s military rule of the West Bank or its stranglehold of Gaza. When a house is demolished in East Jerusalem or the security wall cuts off an orchard or garden, a Palestinian owner can only file a complaint at a hardly-impartial Israeli military court; if the index took this sort of thing into account, Israel would rank considerably lower.
The 2009 Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RWB) does distinguish between Israeli practices internally and externally. Internally, it is ranked 93rd, behind countries like Kuwait (60), Lebanon (61) and the UAE (86). Externally, it is ranked 150th,mainly due to its military offensive against the Gaza Strip during which both foreign and Israeli media were denied access.
“Israel has begun to use the same methods internally as it does outside its own territory,” RWB warned. Journalists have been arrested and imprisoned within Israel and military censorship continues to pose a threat. There is an agreement between the military censor and the editors of newspapers that, when it comes to sensitive issues, all stories must go through the former.
Meanwhile, recent initiatives by Israel’s coalition government of religionists, “Russians” and right-wing nationalists will do little to improve the country’s democratic standing. On January 5, the Israeli Knesset voted for a plan, initiated by the Yisrael Beitenu Party (YBP) of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, to investigate the work and funding of domestic and foreign human rights groups. The bill accuses local rights groups of damaging the Israeli military by “branding IDF soldiers and commanders as war criminals.” Among the targeted groups are the Israeli Peace Now movement, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel and Breaking the Silence, an organization that publishes anonymous accounts by Israeli soldiers stationed in the occupied territories.
“Movements on the extreme left have proven they are some of the people who would like to see the State of Israel destroyed,” said Israeli Member of Parliament Michael Ben Ari. “They are betraying the state and therefore there is no escape from taking steps against them. We will reveal they are funded by enemy states and we will put them on the same line with Hezbollah.”
Yet despite such unnerving statements, there are still indications that Israel is miles ahead of most countries in the region. “Persecution and attempts at silencing will not stop us,” stated the Israeli human rights watchdog B’Tselem defiantly. “In a democracy, criticism of the government is not only legitimate — it is essential.”
Under the slogan “Demonstration(since it’s still possible) for democracy,” thousands of people on January 15marched the streets of Tel Aviv in protest against the Knesset decision. Try doing that anywhere else in the region (apart from Beirut) and arrest, imprisonment and possibly torture will be coming your way. After all, the EIU index ranks Lebanon (86), Palestine (93) and Iraq (111) as “hybrid democracies.” A synonym for hybrid is “mongrel”: the offspring of two different breeds of dogs.
All other countries in the region, including Tunisia (144), are simply categorized as “authoritarian regimes.” The index warns that democracy worldwide is in decline, as “autocrats have… learned how better to protect themselves.” Another key factor is “the delegitimization of much of the democracy-promotion agenda, which has been associated with military intervention and unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A combination of double standards in foreign policy and growing infringements of civil liberties has led to charges of hypocrisy against Western states.”
Let us not forget that both western and Arab leaders, until recently, praised Tunisia for being such a beacon of stability and loyal partner in the fight against extremism. In such a climate, it is a sad conclusion that Israel, while hardly a model, is the region’s democratic torchbearer — at least if you’re lucky enough to hold citizenship.
PETER SPEETJENS is a Beirut-based journalist