Democracy and a regime of apartheid cannot coexist - Article by Chris Doyle

Democracy and a regime of apartheid cannot coexist -
Article by Chris Doyle in Arab News, 31 October 2022

More than 5.5 million Palestinians may be getting a new overlord. The electorate of their occupier, Israel, will make its choice on Tuesday. This will be followed by weeks or months of grubby horse-trading, which may even lead to another ballot in the spring of 2023.

This will be the fifth Israeli election in less than four years. While this may be extremely consequential for Israel’s Jewish voters, most Palestinians merely shrug their shoulders.

The reality is that an electorate of 6.5 million Israelis — and in particular the 80 percent who are Jewish — will determine their future. Ten percent of the Israeli Jewish electorate, the settlers, do not even live in Israel but in occupied territory. Here, they can vote while their Palestinian neighbors cannot.

The Israeli Jewish electorate does not even bother to debate the fate of these millions of people whose lives they not only control but dominate. It is hard to recall when the Palestinian issue was a central issue in an Israeli election. In one poll, only 31 percent of Israeli Jews thought a government should advance a two-state solution, down from 44 percent in February 2021. This figure would be even lower if it was premised on a Palestinian state that was sovereign, based on the 1967 lines and with a capital in Jerusalem, the fundamental components of any viable two-state solution.

Incredibly, Benjamin Netanyahu is the dominant issue of these elections. It is all about “Bibi.” Who will work with him, who will not. The Israeli right will get a majority of the Knesset seats, but a section of that right-wing vote will be for candidates who refuse to be in a coalition with Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

The lazy thinking internationally is that Palestinians must surely prefer Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid to win. He has called for a two-state solution after all. He does not utter the racist, anti-Arab bile of many of his opponents. Surely he is more trustworthy than his major opponent, Netanyahu, who will be attempting to fashion a coalition of the far right for the fifth time.

However, none of the three likely scenarios would work for Palestinians. A Netanyahu-led coalition is perhaps the most likely. The second would be a further election and, in Israeli election seasons, increasing the oppression of Palestinians is a vote-winning tactic. The third and least likely scenario is that Lapid somehow scrapes together another weak coalition. But any coalition would likely crumble within a year or two.

How do Palestinians see Lapid’s record and the so-called change coalition? The Palestinian lived experience during the last 18 months of coalition government has been horrific. Major settlement enterprises moved forward. Homes were demolished. Whole areas such as Masafer Yatta in the South Hebron Hills are on the verge of being ethnically cleansed. Gaza was bombed in August. The level of lethal force used against Palestinians in 2022 has been the worst since 2015. Nablus, a city with more than 160,000 Palestinian residents, has endured weeks of army and settler-imposed closure.

Palestinian civil society has been under attack, with six leading human rights and civil society organizations proscribed as terrorist, as yet without any evidence according to the EU and even the CIA.

This coalition also enacted legislation that strips Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem of their residency rights based on a “breach of allegiance to the state of Israel.” By the end of 2021, Israel had deprived six Palestinians of these rights. Of course, Israel also has other laws it uses to remove such rights, but this is yet another regressive and discriminatory tool. And yes, Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem cannot vote in Israeli elections.

But things could get worse, as a new Israeli coalition could shift from being right wing to extreme right, containing some of the most racist anti-Arab elements in Israeli politics, the neo-Kahanists. This includes the Religious Zionism alliance of Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich. Netanyahu has said both would be ministers in his coalition.

Ben-Gvir is Netanyahu’s equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster. It was Netanyahu’s wheeling and dealing that saw Ben-Gvir get a Knesset seat in 2021. This time, Ben-Gvir’s party could get 13 or 14 seats. He is an overtly racist settler, as opposed to being quietly racist. He supports the transfer of Palestinians and sees Palestinian citizens as a fifth column. Ben-Gvir recently said: “They won’t have a country nor Israeli citizenship … I’m against autonomy. I’ll dismantle the Palestinian Authority … they won’t vote in Israeli elections.” He will demand open Jewish prayer on the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

Will diaspora Jews sever links with an Israeli government that includes the likes of Ben-Gvir? Can they genuinely continue the fiction that Israel is a credible liberal democracy?

And what about the 1.7 million Palestinian citizens of Israel? They still suffer from discrimination, even if it is not as intense as in the Occupied Territories. The poverty rate in Israel is three times higher among Palestinians than among Jews.

However, disillusionment is very strong. Palestinian voters just do not see their vote as being able to make a difference. One poll suggests that the turnout among Palestinian citizens will be 43.5 percent. It was 44.6 percent in 2021, whereas the national turnout was 67.4 percent. There is a scenario in which all three Palestinian parties do not make it past the 3.25 percent threshold, something that would probably thrust Netanyahu back to the premiership. The Knesset may be Palestinian-free as a result. This is not helped by the demise of the Joint List, which was set up in 2015, meaning the Palestinian vote is spread thinly among three different parties.

Of course, the Palestinian parties cannot fight for equality in Israel. They cannot get rid of the laws and practices that discriminate against them.

Many Palestinians in Israel I have spoken to admit to being scared. The surge of the extreme right will only exacerbate these fears. They have seen the marches with “death to Arabs” chants being sung and nothing being done about it. They have seen the number of attacks on Palestinians increase. Netanyahu has every motivation to suppress Palestinian voting. It is no surprise that he is once again threatening to use cameras to film voting, even though it is illegal.

Perhaps most galling of all, Palestinians will once again have to endure the reiteration of the myth that Israel is some form of liberal democracy. It is not. Only half the people that live in territory under Israeli control will have a meaningful vote. Those people are Israeli Jewish. It is no great democratic exercise. Democracy and a regime of apartheid cannot coexist.