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Rear Vision -

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Malcolm Turnbull [archival]: We have so much in common; shared values, democracy, freedom, the rule of law. Two great democracies, each of us big-hearted, generous, committed to freedom. Prime Minister, you are so welcome here in Australia.

Annabelle Quince: Malcolm Turnbull welcoming the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month. The PM believes that Israel is the only true democracy in the Middle East.

But can a nation established specifically as a Jewish state be truly democratic? And what does democracy mean to Jewish Israelis, to Arab Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, and to Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza?

Hello, I'm Annabelle Quince and this is Rear Vision on RN, via the web and your ABC radio app.

Like most things in the Middle East, the question of just how democratic Israel is is contested. Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and the author of Why I am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish identity, and the challenges of today.

Gil Troy: First, let's start by acknowledging that these days everybody thinks you have a choice between being a Jewish state or a democratic state. And that misses two very important points. One, is that many of the key ideas of democracy stem from the Bible. So rather than always looking at it as a contradiction between Judaism and democracy, we have to understand that the notion from the Bible of individual dignity, of individuals having a voice, of equality, of liberty, comes very much from that document. Obviously it's an ancient document so applying it in a modern state can get complicated. But it's not always a tension. That's number one.

Number two is we also have to remember that Judaism is not like Christianity. Christianity is a religion. But when you are a Jew you are a part of this religion, this faith community, but you're also a part of a people, and because Jews are a people, that means that you can have a Jewish state that's not a theocracy because it is a state that is an expression of the Jewish people's national rights, just like Australians have national collective rights and are tied to a particular land, just like Sudanese have national rights and collective rights to a particular land, so to the Jews.

And that doesn't, by the way, preclude other countries and other peoples having ties to that land, i.e. the Palestinians, but the Jews have a 3,000-year-old history, and in fact we are in many ways the original aboriginal people, we are the ones who are still singing from the same hymnal, reading the same Bible, using the same language in our land, and that is a very powerful fundamental idea.

So those two things kind of guide us. And the reason why Israel is a democracy is because it passes the essential tests of most democracies. The political leaders are voted in. There's core freedoms of expression and speech and religion, and there's rule of law in civil society.

Annabelle Quince: Daniel Sokatch, the Chief Executive Officer of the New Israel Fund however, argues that some aspects Israeli state undermine its democratic credentials.

Daniel Sokatch: Israel is a country that still has for its citizens open elections, open and free and fair elections. Of course I say 'for its citizens' because one immediately runs into a complication, because for 50 years as of June of this year, Israel will have controlled the lives of 2.7 million Palestinians living on the West Bank who don't have a vote in Israel's elections. So if you are a citizen of the State of Israel, regardless of whether you are Jewish or Arab or whatever else, you have a vote and you have the franchise and you have civil rights and rights as citizens that are generally respected.

There's also a free press which is a fundament of democracy, although in recent years, Freedom House, the international organisation that assesses the quality of democratic society, has downgraded Israel's press to describe it as 'mostly free'. In these ways, Israel is still a democratic society, it's still a free society, but the real challenge to Israel when it comes to democracy is twofold. One is the 50-year occupation. What you call an arrangement like that? When your country controls every aspect virtually of the lives of 2.7 million people who have no say or vote in the government that rules them? And when that group of people lives in territory, not part of sovereign Israel, alongside of about half a million Israeli citizens who do have all the benefits and rights of Israeli citizenship, that is to say the settler community? That's Roman numeral 1.

And Roman numeral 2 is the lack of any separation of synagogue and state. The religious establishment in Israel is part of the state, and that presents a host of challenges and problems when it comes to issues of freedom of religion.

Journalist [archival]: Britain told the UN it would terminate the mandate within six months. British responsibility ended on May 15, 1948. On the same day David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the Independent State of Israel, realising at last the aspirations of 70 years of Zionism.

Daniel Sokatch: Israel's declaration of Independence (I can quote you the relevant paragraph) secures Israel's identity as an equal, open, free society for all its residents. So there's a dual (some might say competing) set of imperatives in the declaration of independence, and Israel does not have a constitution, it has this declaration of independence and then a set of basic laws. So this is really the founding document.

And listen to this paragraph. This is the heart of the declaration. 'The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the ingathering of exiles.' That's the perception that we have of Israel as a place that was created as a safe haven for the Jews. Now there's a semicolon, and it says, 'It will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants. It will be based on freedom, justice and peace, as envisaged by the profits of Israel. It will ensure complete equality of social, political rights to all of its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or sex. It will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture. It will safeguard the holy places of all religions and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.'

So there you have it, Israel is founded on dual authorities. One, the need for a Jewish homeland and a safe haven and the 'ingathering of the exiles', as it puts it. And two, as a state that guarantees total equality for all of its inhabitants.

Haviv Gur: Israel was founded not just as a nationstate for the Jews. It was founded by refugees.

Annabelle Quince: Haviv Gur is a political analyst at The Times of Israel.

Haviv Gur: There's a lot of the debate around Israel, around the world where there are a lot of people who talk about maybe Israel shouldn't have come into being, maybe it's not a good thing that Israel exists, maybe there was a better way to solve all these different problems without displacing the Palestinians in 1948. And these are debates around the world that are essentially moral grandstanding because there's a hard political and strategic reality in 1948, the Jews simply had nowhere else to go, they're simply wasn't anyone willing to take them.

There were 800,000 roughly Jews in Israel in 1948. By 1953, by five years later there were another 800,000, 900,000. The country doubled in population. And those are Jews who could not live in the Arab world. A third of the city of Baghdad just literally picked up and left in the '50s. And those were Jews who had been there for 3,000 years. And that happened throughout the Muslim world. And at the time the United States wasn't taking Jews in, even after the Holocaust. And neither was any other country. So there wasn't really a choice. The Jews either will could establish their state, build their army, defend themselves, build their own polity, or die.

Journalist [archival]: There was little time for celebration. Within hours the new state was at war with the four Arab countries surrounding it. For six months the fighting continued. The Israelis lost the old city of Jerusalem to Jordan, but managed to hold on to most of their territory elsewhere. A truce was signed in February 1949, and on the first anniversary of independence, Israelis packed the streets of Tel Aviv to watch their new army parade their spoils of war.

Ben White: When the State of Israel was established, around 90% of all the Palestinians who were or who otherwise would have been inside the new Israeli state's boundaries were expelled. Some of them were forcibly expelled at gunpoint. Some of them left because it was a time of conflict, but then crucially they were prevented from returning, and they've remained (and their descendants) refugees to this day.

Annabelle Quince: Ben White is a journalist and author of Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination, and Democracy.

Ben White: The reason why Palestinian refugees have been denied the right to return, the reason why the Israeli state has always maintained that Palestinian refugees cannot return home is because their removal, their exclusion from the country is what created the so-called Jewish majority that Israel says is its right to maintain. The fact that the central act of the establishment of the State of Israel with regards to establishing a Jewish majority was the forced exclusion of the indigenous Palestinian population, that is a profoundly undemocratic act.

And in the years that followed, the key legislation that the Israeli state passed, the absentee property law, the citizenship law and the law of return established the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. It was a way of making sure that Palestinians who had been expelled outside the state's boundaries would not be allowed to return and were stripped of their citizenship. Those laws also made sure that any Jew in the world could immigrate to Israel and receive citizenship. And the absentee property law was the main legislative tool, along with many others, and military orders, used to expropriate the land of expelled Palestinian refugees, but also was used to confiscate land of Palestinians who had remained inside the state and become citizens.

And an important point for people to realise actually is that Israel doesn't have a Constitution, it has a series of what are called basic laws that provide a quasi-constitutional structure, but within those basic laws Israel has not actually enshrined the right to equality within its legal system. And what a lot of observers have described Israel as is less a democracy and more an ethnocracy.

Gil Troy: The law of return is a law that is passed early on in Israel's history, in the early 1950s in response to the Holocaust, in response to thousands of years, frankly, of anti-Semitism and of killing Jews when they were homeless, saying that any Jew who wants to come to this Jewish state automatically has the right to return, the right of citizenship. If there was not a path for non-Jews, for Christians, for Arabs to also immigrate, it would be wrong and undemocratic. But instead what they did is this is a kind of fast-track path, and if you were an Arab, if you were a Christian, if you were a non-Jew, a Buddhist, whatever, you have the right to go through a separate parallel immigration procedure. It sounds a little unfair.

Well, if you come to the United States of America with half a million dollars and you invest it in a company that creates at least 10 jobs, you and your family are able to fast-track. What's the United States of America saying? That yes, all people are equal, but if you come as a penniless refugee from Syria, you are not going to get the same rights, the same fast track as someone who we want for entrepreneurial reasons. Every country in the world makes some distinctions when it comes to immigration. That's because every successful democracy ultimately bases itself on a sense of nationalism, and in Israel that glue for the 80%, for the majority, is Jewish glue, is that Jewish past, but they always try to make sure that minority rights are protected.

Annabelle Quince: You're with Rear Vision on RN and via your ABC Radio app. I'm Annabelle Quince.

What of those Palestinian Arabs who stayed in 1948, have they become part of the Jewish state?

Gil Troy: That's a nice segue into talking about the current President of the State of Israel, Ruvi Rivlin. Ruvi Rivlin is a right winger. He is someone who believes very strongly in holding on to the settlements. But (and this gets to the central point of your question) he emphasises the fact is that as a liberal Zionist he deeply believes and understands that as a result of history the Jewish State of Israel actually has 80% Jews and 20% Arabs. And those 20% Arabs deserve equal citizenship as promised in the declaration of independence, as perpetuated by Knesset law, the basic laws, and many Supreme Court judges' opinions.

And so Ruvi Rivlin, this right-wing president, has spent the last two years that he has been in office reaching out to the Israeli Arab population, saying you are one of us. We are creating a Jewish state just like in Europe you have many countries that ultimately have a kind of Christian or ethnic dimension to them but still have minority rights. And a democracy doesn't need to be neutral in the public square, it can have a majority sensibility but ultimately make sure that Israeli Arabs have minority rights.

Israeli Arabs since the start of the Israeli experiment in democracy in 1948 to have been able to vote in the Middle East. Arabs living in Syria, living in Egypt have not had the free vote that Israeli Arabs have been able to enjoy consistently and freely and democratically since the 1940s.

Ben White: Up until 1966 the Palestinian citizens of Israel were subjected to a military regime, to martial law. And areas like the Galilee, for example, where there was and remains to this day a disproportionately large number of Palestinian citizens compared to Jewish citizens, areas like the Galilee were divided into small units where Palestinians would need travel permits from a military governor to move around, and the military regime was also used to confiscate land, and also to suppress political activity.

So the State of Israel imposed this military regime on Palestinian citizens from the very beginning, and it only formally ended in 1966. And by a small quirk of history it was only about six or seven months after the end of that military regime targeting Palestinian citizens that Israel's military occupation of the West Bank in Gaza Strip began. So actually, as it's turned out, in its 69-year history, the State of Israel has only had about half a year when it hasn't been ruling some number of Palestinians with a military regime.

Daniel Sokatch: And it was only in 1966 that all of the Arab Israelis were made full and total citizens of Israel, equal in every way, certainly on paper, to Jewish Israelis. Depending on who you were and where you lived, your situation might be better or worse, but of course that's also true of some of the Jewish groups that came…one of the great tensions in Israeli society that is often obscured because of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is that between Ashkenazi Jews, Jews of European origin, and Mizrachi, which means 'eastern' in Hebrew, Jews of middle eastern and North African origin. These divisions in Israeli society were not unique to Jews versus Arabs, also within the Jewish majority there were many, many divides.

And so all of this is to say that within the borders…and here I'm speaking about the internationally agreed upon borders of Israel that existed up until 1967, at this point all citizens are equal, and that's according to the law. De facto we could argue, that is in my country and in your country, some citizens are more equal than others. But that's sort of a work in progress.

And so one of the most interesting and in my opinion heartening developments in the recent tough and difficult years in Israel is that the third largest party in the Israeli Knesset is a party called the Joint List, which is made up of three parties that joined together, one Jewish and Arab party, which was the former communist party, and two traditionally Arab parties, one sort of religious and one more nationalistic, that formed a joint party and rocketed to become the third largest party in the State of Israel led by a visionary leader, a guy called Ayman Odeh who in my opinion is the closest thing Israel has right now to sort of a Martin Luther King type character who is trying to represent the interests of both Arabs and Jews who want to create a truly shared society.

Haviv Gur: There is a fascinating tension among Israel's Arab citizens in which they both want to be Israeli, they are proud to be Israeli. Just in the last decade even there is a dramatic spike in their participation in the workforce, educational achievement. The Christian Arab community in Israel has higher educational and socio-economic achievement levels than the Jews of Israel. And yet the top Arab politician in Israel, Ayman Odeh, he is a member of Knesset, he's the head of this joint Arab list of all the Arab majority parties in parliament, but he essentially says, 'I am here, I'm native to this place.' He comes from a Haifa family that has been in this country for many, many years. 'I'm not a Jew. What part can I play? What is my Israel? I'm not leaving. I'm not going to be a Palestinian. I am a proud Israeli, I'm an intellectual, I went to a big Israeli university, what is my Israel? I'm not a Jew, and therefore what part can I play in this Israeli story?'

Now, part of this is any ethnic minority in large parts of the democratic world, in fact most democratic countries there is an ethnic majority and that majority might even have a noncitizen ethic diaspora that the state serves, like Greece has a law of return, not entirely different from Israel's, for ethnic Greeks. And then there are other ethnic minorities that are not what part of the nationstate but as citizens with equal rights within this state that is the nationstate of another nation. It is not a unique problem.

Ben White: Palestinian citizens of Israel have of course been always pushing back and seeking to resist efforts to marginalise them and discriminate against them, and you will find Palestinian citizens in numerous walks of life within Israel. In fact one of the things that people like Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel's diplomatic friends will point to when it comes to discussions of Israel and democracy is the fact that, for example, you will find Palestinian citizens within the Knesset, within Israel's Parliament, and in theory you can find a Palestinian citizen on, say, the Supreme Court.

The point is here though is that it's important not to use those examples in a kind of tokenistic fashion. If we took the example of the Knesset and Israeli political life as an example, there has never been a party that represents the Arab population within government, in all of Israel's 69-year history there has only ever been three non-Jewish ministers out of hundreds. And in fact those Palestinian members of parliament who are particularly vocal and active in terms of demanding an end to the institutionalised discrimination that exists or who express solidarity with what's happening to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza strip find themselves stigmatised, threatened or excluded from the Knesset plenum for particular periods of time. So they are very much sort of in the game but kept outside of power.

Annabelle Quince: Haneen Zoabi is an Arab Israel and a member of the Israeli parliament the Knesset. She argues that as a minority Israel Arabs have no power and no really say in decision making. She spoke to me on a very bad mobile phone line.

Haneen Zoabi: Yes, we have some procedural democracy. We can vote but we actually as a minority we don't influence the rules of the game. The state is so strong that they may give me freedom of expression. But yes, they can confiscate my land, not let me study my history in the schools, let me pay taxes, and let me shout in the Knesset, guarantee me a marginal freedom of expression. Democracy is not to be inside the Knesset as a minority. Democracy is to give me the right to influence the system. But because as a Palestinian you cannot be able to be a part of this regime because this regime defends the state as a state of the Jews.

Ben White: The institutional discrimination to which I refer to, and by the way that's actually the term used by the US State Department in their annual report on human rights in Israel, that institutional discrimination affects things like what we've already mentioned, to do with land and housing, but it also affects other areas such as family life and the ability to have family reunification.

If you are, say, a Palestinian citizen of Israel from Haifa, for example, and you wish to marry or you've married a Palestinian from the West Bank under Israeli military occupation, you are unable to or face severe restrictions on your ability to bring that spouse to live with you inside Israel and for that spouse to receive Israeli residency as your husband or wife. And the impact of that law has been massively detrimental and it's affected thousands of Palestinian families, it means that some Israeli citizens will have had to choose, for example, to actually leave the country in order to be with their spouse, or it means that people have been separated or perhaps just maybe didn't get married at all to begin with because of the existence of this law. So yes, Israel is democratic for the Jews, and it is Jewish for the Palestinians.

Annabelle Quince: In June 1967 a war was fought between Israel and its neighbours; Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. At the end of the six-day war Israel had seized control of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan.

Ben White: The State of Israel has been around for 69 years, 50 of them Israel has held the West Bank and Gaza Strip under military occupation. As you said, the Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip do not have, were not given Israeli citizenship. Israel did not formally annex those territories, with the exception of the illegally and unilaterally expanded boundaries of East Jerusalem, and of course the Golan Heights too.

But of course in that 50-year period Israel has colonised and settled those territories with its own citizens. So there are now more than 600,000 Jewish Israelis living in illegal settlements constructed in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. And what Israel has done over the decades is effectively, if not legally, although that's starting to happen incrementally, effectively incorporated the territories occupied in '67 into the basic fabric of the state. Because if you are a Jewish Israeli settler living in somewhere like Ariel for example in the north of the West Bank, quite deep in the West Bank, you can come and go as you please across the so-called green line as an Israeli citizen, while around you live Palestinians who do not have Israeli citizenship but are subject to military law.

Since 1967 there has been more than a dozen Knesset elections, more than a dozen national elections that Israeli settlers living in the West Bank have voted in, but of course the Palestinians who live around them haven't voted in. And that dual system, people have talked about separate, not equal, people have talked about apartheid, but however you describe it, the situation is that you have two groups of people living in the same space, but one of them has privileges that the other group doesn't.

Gil Troy: This would be a very different conversation if in the 1990s Israel hadn't tried to make an elaborate compromise with the Palestinians called the Oslo peace process. Under the Oslo peace process Israel, realising that it didn't want to be a democratic state that didn't give human beings basic rights said okay, we are going to withdraw as quickly as possible from the major Palestinian cities so that we reduce the Israeli footprint as much as possible and reduce day-to-day tensions between the military that you mentioned and the Palestinian population.

And the idea was to start building trust, building democratic institutions within the Palestinian authority, and start building toward a solution that would allow for what we call a two-state solution, Israelis and Palestinians living side by side.

I know I'm going to sound biased, but Arafat led his people away from negotiations and toward terror, and so that opportunity to create a Palestinian state, that opportunity to give the Palestinians equal rights…because let me say something, as a Zionist I am passionately respectful of Palestinian national rights because I know how hurtful it is when someone says the Jews don't have national rights, so I would never negate Palestinian collective identity, Palestinian national identity. And as a Democrat, someone who believes in democracy, I feel very passionately that the Palestinian Arabs should have democratic rights, even if they don't have them in many other Arab countries.

But on the whole, the real opportunity, the real leadership had to come from the Palestinians who were willing to say we accept the Jewish state and so we will accept a compromise. And Arafat wasn't willing to do that.

Haviv Gur: At least for the last 25 years, at least since the 1992 start of the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian question in the West Bank and in Gaza has been the defining question of Israeli politics. The mainstream Israeli desire and view is that we've given up on Gaza, the siege only began in 2007, we withdrew in 2005 and it only began because Hamas took over, and if they stopped shooting at us we will leave them alone, but they can stop shooting at us.

I'm not arguing this as correct, I'm not arguing that we are innocent and they are guilty, I'm arguing this is the mainstream Israeli view. And no small part of Israel's Arab citizens also believe that, they don't like Hamas. In the West Bank we can't make that argument. In the West Bank we maintain a daily occupation, our soldiers, our young people, our 19-year-olds man the checkpoints. There are nightly raids into Palestinian cities. There is a much more direct control and settlements.

And some of the settlements are very large cities attached to the green line that are not going to be a problem in terms of land swaps, but about a quarter of the settlements, so about 90,000 settlers live between Palestinian population centres in the middle of the West Bank, and these are ideological settlers. They didn't move there because the housing is cheaper, they moved there because they believe that they should never give up this land.

And if we don't give up the West Bank, if the occupation is not temporary, which is what the argument of the Israeli government has been for 50 years, that's why we are not giving them citizenship, because this is temporary, if we are not leaving, then of course we can't sustain a situation where everyone doesn't get citizenship. This is a democracy founded to serve the cause of Jewish solidarity, safety, refuge, but it is a democracy. And there is a profound sense in Israel among Jews that the way we treat Palestinians is ultimately the way we will treat each other, there is a slippery slope.

Annabelle Quince: Haviv Gur, political analyst with The Times of Israel. My other guests: Gil Troy, professor of history at McGill University; Ben White, author of Palestinians in Israel; Haneen Zoabi, member of the Israeli Knesset; and Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund.

If you're podcasting Rear Vision feel free to rate us on you podcast server so other listeners can also find us.

Today's sound engineer is Russel Stapleton. I'm Annabelle Quince, and this is Rear Vision on RN.