Scenes of IDF soldiers removing Gazan settlers bring new meaning to the rallying cry: ?Support Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East.? Despite calls to skirt their duty, soldiers behaved honorably during the evacuation, revealing the humane side of the IDF that the global media usually disregards. The empathetic restraint displayed by the soldiers towards the evacuees humanized the surgical language and procedures that usually characterize IDF activity. Images of soldiers weeping and praying with settlers immediately following their removal revealed the possibility of Jewish unity in the midst of painful discord. Notwithstanding the emotional complexities of carrying out such a decree, the conduct of the army upheld the democratic decision making power of the Israeli government, one that operates tenuously amidst repeated assaults on its authority.
In the hasbarah field it is often repeated that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. For many supporters of Israel the validity of this assertion goes unquestioned. Israel?s close ties with the West leads to effortless acceptance.
Perhaps the 1953 CIA ?Operation Ajax? to secretly oust Mohammad Mossadegh, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran from power, was just a ploy to ensure the Israeli monopoly on democracy in the Middle East. Comparing the U.S. government?s fervent support of the Shah of Iran?s dictatorship for 25 years with its recent destruction of the Saddam regime in the name of democracy reveals that democracy and Westernization do not always go hand-in-hand, and that support for democratic reform in the Middle East has not always been the top priority for United States.
In any case, whether Israel is indeed the only democracy in the region is somewhat of a moot point if the state does not maintain fundamental elements of democratic governance.
Democracy in Israel needs to be strengthened, not for the sake of public relations and geo-political alignments, but for the inherent value that a democratic system provides to its constituents in securing freedom and equal rights under the law. Authority given to the state by the governed can be an empowering model of organization, as long as dissent is allowed and the minority opinion is taken into consideration. Instituting a parliamentary system in Israel within a region more known for its oil-rich oligarchies than its robust democratic tradition has not been simple, and this delicate system continues to be challenged today by various factions within Israeli society.
Challenging the authority of the state from one side are the impassioned cries of fringe elements in the settler movement calling on soldiers to defy their orders to dismantle and evacuate settlements. GOC Southern Command Major General Dan Harel, the man responsible for carrying out the Gaza disengagement, spoke candidly to Ha?aretz about the possible effects of a derailing of the disengagement by its opponents. He stated ?if the State of Israel is not able to implement its decisions, it is no longer a democracy. If the army does not carry out the directives of the government, then you had better learn Spanish, because there will be a South American-style regime here.? It is unlikely that Argentinean olim will soon be rising from their seats in Ulpan to take their teachers place at the front of the classroom, but Harel?s euphemism is instructive.
Citizens of Israel, who refuse to grant authority to the democratically elected government to carry out its decisions, whether for religious or political reasons, not only threaten the democratic system, but place themselves on the periphery of the system.
Left-wing Israeli soldiers in the refusal movement have faced vilification on similar grounds. Their argument for refusal in the Occupied Territories is often based on secular moral grounds, making them strange bedfellows with the Greater Israel proponents who decry the expulsion of Jews on moral grounds, albeit with religiously infused morality. One place where their arguments diverge is actually on the issue of democracy and voting rights, where refusal to serve in the territories is connected to the disenfranchisement of over 3.5 million Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation. This demographic poses a most serious threat to Israeli democracy, especially if a two-state solution where Palestinians can exercise rights of citizenship in a sovereign nation goes unimplemented. Otherwise Arafat?s premonition that ?the womb of the Palestinians will defeat the Zionists? will ring true, at least in terms of sustaining a Jewish democracy.
Add to the mix of displeased citizens the large minority of 1.2 million Palestinian Arab-Israelis, who in many respects have been treated as second class citizens in a country that has been known to prioritize Jewish rights, and you have a large swath of disgruntled Israelis who challenge the authority of the state on a daily basis.
Government authority can also crumble from within, when it becomes clear that the government has been acting negligently and even illegally. For example, Talia Sasson?s official report in March 2005 revealed that the Israeli government, beginning with the Netanyahu administration, tacitly allowed the creation of illegal settlement outposts in breach of law with a diversion of government funds intended for other purposes. With the passage of time many of the outposts were retroactively attached to existing settlements, blurring the legal distinctions among the settlements and creating new ?facts on the ground.?
One of the consequences of being characterized as a Western nation is being compared to the rest of the West. An annual report just released by Israel?s National Insurance Institute indicates that one out of three children live in poverty, the highest proportion of any Western nation. The U.S. comes in second place with 27% of its children in poverty. But why bemoan this social injustice while Israel is in the midst of a high-tech revolution, which is supposedly bringing wealth and prosperity to a greater number of Israelis? Should every new report that reveals the gross inequalities on the rise in Israel be tempered with a new report of technological innovation? Are we supposed to be comforted by the fact that an Israeli invented the Bone Injection Gun (BIG), which allows a medic to bypass the veins in an human arm and directly inject medications into the marrow?
To be sure, Israeli technological innovation is something to be proud of and encouraged on its own terms. The world?s largest desalination plant was just opened in Ashkelon, which will supply 15% of Israel?s household water needs. This accomplishment is a tremendously positive response to the water shortage issues of the region, and may lead to a lessening of tensions surrounding water rights with neighboring countries. However, if this technology is to benefit all of the peoples living in the region, then the distribution of the water cannot just trickle down to the minority and impoverished sectors, while the majority of the water is funneled into the playgrounds and swimming pools of the rich and ?settled.? A just distribution of this water will ensure that Israeli innovation of this significance, which has the potential to benefit all, actually does so. Ultimately, the legitimacy of Israel as a democratic Jewish state is reinforced when its resources, like desalinated fresh water, is provided equitably to all its citizens.