In the din of battle


The persistence of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is having a direct and significant impact upon the development of democracy in both societies. Israel is a country with thousands of intellectuals in a wide range of fields. Still, since 1974 all of Israel’s prime ministers have been military leaders. Ehud Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu and Yitzhak Shamir were either generals and/or ranking members of Israel’s special forces and intelligence services. This is militarization at its heart. It seems very clear today that Israel is under the influence of a silent coup d’etat where the military dominates politics, as well as the texture and quality of democratic life.

Doubters should pick up the new book, Wars Don’t Just Happen, by Motti Golani, which details Israel’s culture of power. “Since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, its leadership has generally preferred to use force to solve problems, not all of which have been life-and-death issues,” writes Golani, as quoted in Ha’aretz. The consequences of this approach are visible in the Israeli political system, where Israel’s ongoing military posture is strengthening the executive, to the detriment of the legislative. Israel has a democratic system, but it is what one might call an ethnic democracy, where “tribalism” rules. The only way to escape this situation is to institute reforms. If the United States is the model, only after the mid-1960s and the acceptance of civic society and multiculturalism did democracy in the United States flourish.

On the Palestinian side, the continuation of the conflict is directly and blatantly responsible for the rise and strengthening of radical Muslim movements that do not accept liberal democratic values in the universal sense. Here I am differentiating between political Islam and Islam the religion. The faith of Islam includes Sufis who are complete pacifists, as well as the Osama bin Ladins of this world who divide humanity into two groups: Muslims and the rest. The Palestinian opposition group Hamas does not see things black and white in this manner, but it also does not share in a vision of democracy that incorporates liberal democratic values.

Another effect of the conflict is that it is making more and more Palestinians poor, at least for the moment. There is a correlation between education, income and democracy and it has been shown that poverty and democracy are not highly compatible.

But the protraction of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not only having a detrimental effect on democracy’s development in Palestinian society, but democracy in the entire Arab world. These acts of terror in Morocco and Riyadh are at least in part related to the continuation of outstanding Palestinian claims.

Simultaneously, the conflict is preventing real debate. In my own personal example, at the end of 2001, a visitor from the Palestinian security services came to my house late at night. He never mentioned my name per se, but the conversation centered on his opinion that this Intifada is a time of war and that in war, the rules of the game are changed. He told me that in such times, “we” cannot tolerate Birzeit professors using their positions at the university to criticize the Palestinian president. This argument has been used throughout the Arab world during periods–like today–when Arab states have been under attack. In the din of battle, all other voices are expected to stay silent.

The writer is a professor at Beir Zeit University.