Democracy, Israeli Style

An election, a peace plan and an endless occupation.

By Hagai El-Ad the executive director of B’Tselem.

JERUSALEM — When will the “deal of the century,” as President Trump has called his forthcoming plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace, finally be unveiled?

Certainly not before April 9, when Israel holds its next election. But how soon after? “In less than 20 years,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noncommittally told a congressional committee recently.

In any case, American peace plans are nothing new. Does anyone recall, for instance, the Rogers Plans, named after Secretary of State William P. Rogers, who served under President Richard Nixon 50 years ago? When the second of his plans was discussed in the Knesset in 1970, one Israeli legislator confidently projected that “it won’t be long — a year, a year and a half, two at most — before the thing called ‘the held territories’ is no more, and the Israel Defense Force pulls back into Israel’s borders.”

Needless to say, that “thing” is far from being “no more.” While the Rogers Plans have since all but disappeared from memory, erased by a string of plans put forward by successive American presidents, reality in the occupied Palestinian territories didn’t simply halt. Israel’s occupation has deepened and evolved. Gaza has become the world’s largest open-air prison, bombed into submission every few years; East Jerusalem was formally annexed by Israel; the West Bank has become an archipelago of Palestinian Bantustans, surrounded by settlements, walls and checkpoints, subject to a mix of state and settler violence. Yet Israel’s real feat has not only been achieving all of this but doing so with impunity, triggering minimal consequences from the rest of the world, all the while somehow holding on to its valuable public relations label as a “vibrant democracy.”

The history of these past 50 years is what we should recognize as the real deal: the one that is already in effect, the deal of the half-century. In this deal, as long as Israel advances its occupation enterprise while applying a measure of brutality just below the level that would prompt international outrage, it is allowed to carry on, while still enjoying various international perks justified by grand, but obviously hollow, commitments to — as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently put it — the “shared values of liberty and democracy.”

Which brings us to April 9, when Israelis will cast their votes for a Parliament that rules both Israeli citizens and millions of Palestinian subjects denied that same right. Israeli settlers in the West Bank don’t even need to drive to a polling station inside Israel to vote on their Palestinian neighbors’ fate. Even settlers in the heart of Hebron can vote right there, with 285 registered voters (out of a total population of about 1,000 settlers), surrounded by some 200,000 Palestinian nonvoters. Or as Israel calls it, “democracy.”

This will be the 15th national election since the occupation began, and perhaps the one in which Palestinian lives are least discussed — except when tallying up their deaths and celebrating their destruction. Earlier this year, Gen. Benny Gantz, now leader of the new “centrist” party that poses the strongest challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, published a video highlighting how many Palestinian “terrorists” were killed in Gaza in the summer of 2014, when Mr. Gantz was the Army’s chief of staff. (According to research carried out by the Israeli nonprofit B’Tselem, most of those killed by the Israeli army that summer were civilians, among them more than 500 children.) For his part, Mr. Netanyahu has promised that if he remains in office the occupation will continue. “I will not divide Jerusalem, I will not evacuate any community and I will make sure we control the territory west of Jordan,” he said in an interview over the weekend.

Instead of the rights and freedom of Palestinians, the campaign season has focused on Mr. Netanyahu’s likely indictment on corruption charges. But does it really matter to the Palestinian family whose son will be killed with impunity or whose home will be bulldozed if the prime minister responsible for these policies is corrupt or squeaky clean?

At some point after April 9, we may finally get to see what “deal” the Trump administration has in mind. In fact, one cannot help wondering if it isn’t already taking shape before our very eyes: Last May, the Trump administration moved the United States’ embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; a few months later, it cut off aid to Palestinians and the United Nations agency serving Palestinian refugees; most recently, it extended recognition of Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan Heights, a move celebrated by one Israeli official as a sign of things to come with regards to the future of the West Bank.

It’s hard to see how the “deal of the century” will be anything other than an extension of the deal of the half-century. David M. Friedman, the Trump administration’s ambassador to Israel, more or less admitted this in an interview with The Washington Examiner, when he said that the administration would “like to see Palestinian autonomy improve significantly, as long as it doesn’t come at the risk of Israeli security.” But Palestinians deserve full freedom, not an American-marketed improved autonomy, which suggests nothing more than prolonging Israel’s occupation. That means a future based on neither justice nor on international law, but on more control, oppression and state violence.

Unless the international community takes the deal of the half-century off the table, making Israel finally choose between further oppression of Palestinians and facing real consequences, the occupation will continue. The Trump administration, clearly, isn’t up to this task. But the United Nations, including the Security Council, key member states of the European Union — Israel’s largest trading partner — and international public opinion all have ample leverage. And Americans who sincerely believe in human rights and democracy, not just as empty slogans or bargaining chips but as genuine demands, need not wait until 2020 to flex their political power.

Together with the systemic overtaking of lands and the imposition of restrictions on freedom of movement, the denial of political rights was one of the cornerstones of apartheid South Africa. That country, too, considered itself a democracy.

Many Israelis will consider April 9 a celebration of democracy. It’s not. This Election Day should be nothing more than a painful reminder of a deeply undemocratic reality, one that the Trump administration seems pleased to perpetuate — and which the rest of the international community will continue to allow until it finally stops looking the other way. We, the nearly 14 million human beings living on this land, need a future that is worth fighting for: one based on the common humanity of Palestinians and Israelis who believe in a future of justice, equality, human rights and democracy — for all of us.