As pro-democracy and freedom movements sweep the region, Israel's policies look more retrograde.
Ever since Israel began to transition from a charity case to a strategic partner of the United States--an evolutionary process from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s--its supporters in the U.S. political arena have brandished a variety of arguments to justify the unusually close relationship.
From Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser's Czech arms deal and subsequent embrace of the Soviet Union in 1955 until the dissolution of the bipolar superpower system in 1991, Israel's supporters maintained that this Western bastion served U.S. interests by thwarting the advance of Communism in the Middle East.
The abrupt end of the Cold War necessitated a new argument, and the rising lethality of transnational terrorism in the 1990s and 2000s provided one: Israel and the United States shared a common enemy and struggle in the "war on terror." In a shell-shocked post-9/11 political environment, this talisman did the trick well for a time. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon encapsulated this meme just two days after September 11, declaring to Secretary of State Colin Powell that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat "is our Bin Laden."
However, as post-9/11 U.S. wars against and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan wore on inconclusively, this argument lost a great deal of its initial salience. With Israel unable to play more than a behind-the-scenes technological and intelligence role in supporting U.S. war efforts, and with the Muslim world rejecting Israel's ongoing colonization of Palestinian land and its brutal treatment of Palestinians living under its illegal military occupation, U.S. military leaders began to note that Israel actually is a drag on the "war on terror."
In his previous position as Commander of U.S. Central Command, General David Petraeus testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee last year that "Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR [Area of Responsibility of CENTCOM] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support."
Petraeus's testimony deflated the argument that Israel is a strategic asset to the United States, prompting Israel's supporters to rely increasingly on its remaining rationale that as the "only democracy in the Middle East," the United States and Israel share a common value system.
This claim has always been disingenuous, ahistorical, and tinged with racism. Israel can claim to be a democracy only in the sense that apartheid South Africa could also claim to be so: an "ethnocracy" with full democratic rights for the privileged race or religion; lesser or no democratic rights for those with undesirable skin color, ethnicity, nationality, or race.
Israel became a preponderantly Jewish state, thereby gaining this veneer of democracy, only by ethnically cleansing indigenous Palestinians from their homes in 1948 and preventing to this day these refugees and their descendants from exercising their right of return to their homes as guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Palestinians who remained on their land and became citizens of Israel lived under martial law until 1966 and did not achieve even nominal equal rights until then. While enjoying the right to vote and run for office, Palestinian citizens of Israel--who comprise about 20 percent of the population--continue to face a bevy of official discriminatory laws and widespread societal racism that makes them second-class citizens analogous to African Americans in the Jim Crow South.
Since 1967, Israel has militarily occupied the Palestinian West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, placing four million Palestinians under harsh rule, suppressing their right to self-determination and foreclosing on their ability to live under their own free and democratic governance.
Today, even the limited rights afforded by Israel's "ethnocracy" are under threat. Its Jewish and Palestinian citizens find their rights circumscribed by proposed loyalty oaths, parliamentary investigations of nongovernmental organizations critical of the governmental line, and imprisonment of activists standing in solidarity with nonviolent Palestinian protestors in the occupied West Bank.
Israel's apartheid policies toward Palestinians hardly qualify it as a democracy, much less the only one in the Middle East. Since the Taif Agreement effectively ended Lebanon's civil war in 1989, the fragile country has had a functioning, although uniquely sectarian, parliamentary democracy. The withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005, whose presence Israel's supporters used to discredit the independence of Lebanon's democratic system, made it difficult, if not impossible, to argue that Lebanon is not a democracy.
In addition, Israel's one-time strongest ally in the region--Turkey--has a long-standing democratic history. Although punctuated intermittently by military coups, Turkey has been coup-free since the military's "soft coup" of 1997 forced out Welfare Party Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan.
And, after living through decades of tyranny, sanctions, wars, and occupation, Iraq appears to be emerging from the wreckage with a functioning multi-party parliamentary democracy, although facing severe challenges to its consolidation. This accomplishment is occurring despite, not because of, the bait-and-switch rationale for the U.S. war on Iraq that made democracy promotion a hasty afterthought once the ballyhooed weapons of mass destruction proved phantasmagorical.
Thus, even before pro-democracy and freedom movements began to inundate the Arab world in January 2011, Israel's claim to be "the only democracy in the Middle East" was tendentious, if not altogether spurious. However, the grassroots movements that have swept away dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, are on the verge of upending republican and monarchical tyrannies in Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain, and are making strong showings in Morocco, Algeria, and Jordan have completely pulled the rug out from under the racist claims of Israel's supporters.
Never far from the surface of Israel's claim to be the "only democracy in the Middle East" was the implication that Arabs were unamenable to or incapable of practicing democracy. The willingness of hundreds of thousands of Arab protestors in the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli, Manama, and beyond to brave (often U.S.-equipped) armed forces to demand democracy--and for hundreds, if not thousands, to pay the ultimate price for doing so--has demolished this bigoted argument for good. While transitions to democratic governments are far from assured at this point, no one can claim again that Arabs do not yearn for democracy.
To even the most casual observer unaware of Israel's apartheid policies toward Palestinians, Israel's pretensions to democracy suddenly do not look very unique in the region. True, as long as the United States maintains its unconditional diplomatic and military support for Israel's policies, the international community will find it difficult, if not impossible, to sanction Israel for its violations of human rights norms a la apartheid-era South Africa. The Obama Administration's first-ever veto in the Security Council last month of a draft resolution condemning Israel's illegal settlements illustrates this dynamic of the United States shielding Israel from unanimous international opposition to its policies.
However, as autocratic regimes in the Middle East are overthrown and democracies hopefully are firmly implanted, the days of Israel's ability to impose its apartheid rule on Palestinians are inevitably numbered. Truly democratic Arab regimes will never agree--as did Hosni Mubarak's Egypt--to acquiesce to and benefit from U.S. policies that make them co-sponsors of Israel's repression of Palestinians. Israel and its supporters know this full well, which is why they are hoping against hope that the tide of democracy in the Arab world is stemmed.
If democracy sweeps aside tyranny throughout the region, then Israel will stand as an isolated apartheid relic of a bygone era--much like Ian Smith's Rhodesia in postcolonial Africa--that is doomed to obsolescence. If the United States wants to be a true friend of Israel, then it will do its utmost to ensure Israel's transition to a real democracy by insisting on a just and lasting peace that includes equality for all Palestinians, whether they are refugees, citizens of Israel, or under occupation.
Josh Ruebner is the National Advocacy Director of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, a national coalition of 350 organizations working to change U.S. policy toward Israel/Palestine to support human rights, international law, and equality. He is a former Analyst in Middle East Affairs at Congressional Research Service.