The word democracy is bound to invite varying definitions. Most involve equality before the law, access to voting rights, and some type of political representation. While it may be difficult (and perhaps, useless) to search for an exact definition that everyone can agree upon, it should be easier to settle on something that democracy is not: a system in which a large part of the population is stateless and confined to a specific geographic unit within the nation. Yet this is exactly the proposal advanced by supporters of West Bank annexation in Israel, and it poses a lethal threat to the country’s democracy.
In many ways, it is odd to talk about an existential threat to Israeli democracy considering the great strides made within the Green Line in recent decades. Labor and its antecedents’ electoral monopoly in Israel’s first three decades carried a statist sort of authoritarian flair. The party and affiliated entities like the Histadrut union played outsized roles in segments of public life well beyond the realm of politics. Today, the Israeli political scene is far more ideologically diverse. Israel has also progressed in terms of representivity. Though they still face discrimination today, Palestinian Israeli citizens are far better integrated than in the state’s early years and are no longer subject to the military curfew that persisted until 1966. Likewise, Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern origin) still face obstacles but are better represented now than in previous years. Though the country has yet to see a Mizrahi prime minister, there are now somewhat realistic contenders like Labor leader Avi Gabbay. Other marginalized groups, such as Jews from the former Soviet Union, are now part of the fabric of the national leadership.
This is not to say Israeli democracy is perfect. Racist invective finds a home all too often, as it does in other established liberal democracies. Corruption is a non-partisan affair. But considering where Israel started seventy years ago, the progress is impressive.
Yet all of this is within the Green Line and it will be for naught if Israel either fails to separate from the Palestinians in a two-state solution or annexes the West Bank without conferring on its residents equal citizenship rights, and the latter would likely mean a negation of Israel’s raison d’etat as a Jewish homeland. None of the current annexation programs Israeli officials and commentators are pedaling leave behind a state that could be reasonably described as democratic. No amount of mental gymnastics can reconcile democracy with a system in which about a quarter of the country’s residents are stateless and assigned to certain areas essentially on the basis of nationality and origin.
Education and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett’s plan represents one of the more popular one-state ideas. Bennett first articulated his plan in a 2014 New York Times op-ed and most recently marketed it at an event sponsored by the settler Yesha Council and Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs on the sidelines of the 2018 AIPAC Policy Conference. It involves the outright absorption of Area C (60 percent of the West Bank). Areas A and B, where the bulk of the Palestinian population lives, would become autonomous zones where residents would lack Israeli citizenship but, according to Bennett, manage their own internal affairs. Because Palestinians will be unlikely to simply accept Israeli annexation of large swaths of the West Bank, any new autonomous regime in Areas A and B will have to be imposed top-down from Jerusalem. Despite Bennett’s insistence that he only wants to absorb Area C, whatever independence he claims for the autonomous areas would be a fiction only a right-wing Israeli government would accept. Israel would control movement to-and-from the autonomous zones, handle their security, and deny the Palestinians the ability to independently conduct their own foreign relations. They would be as much a part of Israel as the land within the Green Line and the newly annexed Area C, but governed by a different system of laws (there is a word for this). As non-citizens, Palestinians would be unable to seek recourse at the ballot box as their Israeli counterparts do.
The Bennett plan does grant citizenship to the roughly 300,000 Area C Palestinians, but this should not be mistaken for generosity. Palestinians in the so-called autonomous zones, numbering more than two million, would be permanently consigned to statelessness, forever remaining citizens of no country. While proponents of two states cannot immediately resolve the Palestinians’ status, they ultimately leave the door open to political independence and self-determination. However entrenched it looks, Israeli administration in the occupied territories should still be provisional. The Bennett plan is the terminal step.
At the recent event outside AIPAC, the Jewish Home party leader tried to cast a favorable light on his plan. According to Bennett, the arrangement in Areas A and B would function similar to U.S. overseas territories like American Samoa, even though his autonomous zones share far more in common with a South African bantustan. Residents of U.S. overseas territories are American citizens. Although they cannot vote in national elections and are not represented in Congress, they can change this by changing their residency to one of the fifty states. Moving to the mainland – as millions of Puerto Ricans have done in recent years – is no simple task, but it is noteworthy that denizens of American territories do not vote in presidential elections purely because of where they live whereas Palestinians would effectively be disenfranchised for their ethnicity. Moreover, the political situation of the American territories is hardly considered desirable by many of their inhabitants, so it is far from an appealing framework for Palestinians who have agitated, often violently, against Israel for decades.
There are other Israeli supporters of one state, such as pundit Caroline Glick, who do recommend equal citizenship after annexation of the entire West Bank, but only because they estimate the number of West Bank Palestinians to be low enough to preserve a Jewish majority. However, in these cases the land comes first and lives come second. It is not for love of equality that these individuals support citizenship. The number of Palestinians is a convenience on the way to a maximalist expansionist agenda. If someone like Glick – whose statistics fly in the face of official Israeli and American figures – could be convinced of a higher number of Palestinians, it is worth questioning whether she would be so interested in equality.
Sheldon Adelson deserves credit for being open in his contempt for Israeli democracy. The right-wing mega-donor infamously quipped “So what?” when faced with the possibility of a non-democratic Israel. Bennett and his colleagues still speak in platitudes about a “Jewish democracy” in the same sentence that they endorse annexation. The fact is that many of the national religious right’s constituents simply don’t prioritize democracy. Pew surveys have revealed disturbing trends among dati attitudes regarding expelling Arabs from Israel and the role (or lack thereof) of religion in public life.
The formalization of an apartheid or apartheid-esque regime in Israel is bad news for all of its residents, even those who would nominally have access to civil and political rights. In the long run, the democratic deficit imposed by annexation will not just impact Palestinians. It is impossible to normalize sovereignty over a stateless population without eventually targeting dissenters among the in-group, in this case, Jewish Israelis. If millions of Palestinians in a single, Israeli-dominated unitary state do not deserve citizenship on the basis of their ethnicity, why not sideline political opponents too? After all, before 1994, white South Africans enjoyed some degree of electoral democracy independent of the structures administering their black peers. But white opponents of apartheid ultimately faced political persecution too.
Each annexation plan is shortsighted on a number of fronts, including security, diplomacy, and economy. In the areas of governance and democracy, the right-wing impulse toward one state will make short work of seven decades of progress in Israel. If Naftali Bennett and his associates are not interested in democracy, so be it, but their charade ought to be exposed for what it is.