Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Defending Israel from democracy

By Jonathan Cook, The Electronic Intifada, 5 June 2007


The second Palestinian intifada has been crushed. The
700km wall is sealing the occupied population of the West
Bank into a series of prisons. The "demographic timebomb"
-- the fear that Palestinians, through higher birth rates,
will soon outnumber Jews in the Holy Land and that
Israel's continuing rule over them risks being compared to
apartheid -- has been safely defused through the
disengagment from Gaza and its 1.4 million inhabitants. On
the fortieth anniversary of Israel's occupation of the
West Bank and Gaza, Israel's security establishment is
quietly satisfied with its successes.

But like a shark whose physiology requires that, to stay
alive, it never sleeps or stops moving, Israel must remain
restless, constantly reinventing itself and its policies
to ensure its ethnic project does not lose legitimacy,
even as it devours the Palestinian homeland. By keeping a
step ahead of the analysts and worldwide opinion, Israel
creates facts on the ground that cement its supremacist
and expansionist agenda.

So, with these achievements under its belt, where next for
the Jewish state?

I have been arguing for some time that Israel's ultimate
goal is to create an ethnic fortress, a Jewish space in
expanded borders from which all Palestinians -- including
its 1.2 million Palestinian citizens -- will be excluded.
That was the purpose of the Gaza disengagement and it is
also the point of the wall snaking through the West Bank,
effectively annexing to Israel what little is left of a
potential Palestinian state.

It should therefore be no surprise that we are witnessing
the first moves in Israel's next phase of conquest of the
Palestinians. With the 3.7 million Palestinians in the
occupied territories caged inside their ghettos, unable to
protest their treatment behind fences and walls, the turn
has come of Israel's Palestinian citizens.

These citizens, today nearly a fifth of Israel's
population, are the legacy of an oversight by the
country's Jewish leaders during the ethnic cleansing
campaign of the 1948 war. Ever since Israel has been
pondering what to do with them. There was a brief debate
in the state's first years about whether they should be
converted to Judaism and assimilated, or whether they
should be marginalised and eventually expelled. The latter
view, favoured by the country's first prime minister,
David Ben Gurion, dominated. The question has been when
and how to do the deed.

The time now finally appears to be upon us, and the
crushing of these more than one million unwanted citizens
currently inside the walls of the fortress -- the
Achilles' heel of the Jewish state -- is likely to be just
as ruthless as that of the Palestinians under occupation.

In my recent book Blood and Religion, I charted the
preparations for this crackdown. Israel has been secretly
devising a land swap scheme that would force up to a
quarter of a million Palestinian citizens (but hardly any
territory) into the Palestinian ghetoes being crafted next
door -- in return Israel will annex swaths of the West
Bank on which the illegal Jewish settlements sit. The
Bedouin in the Negev are being reclassified as trespassers
on state land so that they can be treated as guest workers
rather than citizens. And lawyers in the Justice Ministry
are toiling over a loyalty scheme to deal with the
remaining Palestinians: pledge an oath to Israel as a
Jewish and democratic state (that is, one in which you are
not wanted) or face being stripped of your rights and
possibly expelled.

There will be no resistance to these moves from Israel's
Jewish public. Opinion polls consistently show that
two-thirds of Israeli Jews support "transfer" of the
country's Palestinian population. With a veneer of
legality added to the ethnic cleansing, the Jewish
consensus will be almost complete.

But these measures cannot be implemented until an
important first battle has been waged and won in the
Knesset, the Israeli parliament. One of Israel's gurus of
the so-called "demographic threat", Arnon Sofer, a
professor at Haifa University, has explained the problem
posed by the presence of a growing number of Palestinian
voters: "In their hands lies the power to determine the
right of return [of Palestinian refugees] or to decide who
is a Jew ... In another few years, they will be able to
decide whether the state of Israel should continue to be a
Jewish-Zionist state."

The warning signs about how Israel might defend itself
from this "threat" have been clear for some time. In
Silencing Dissent, a report published in 2002 by the Human
Rights Association based in Nazareth, the treatment of
Israel's 10 Palestinian Knesset members was documented:
over the previous two years, nine had been assaulted by
the security services, some on several occasions, and
seven hospitalised. The report also found that the state
had launched 25 investigations of the 10 MKs in the same

All this abuse was reserved for the representatives of a
community the Israeli general Moshe Dayan once referred to
as "the quietest minority in the world".

But the state's violence towards, and intimidation of,
Palestinian Knesset members -- until now largely the
reflex actions of officials offended by the presence of
legislators refusing to bow before the principles of
Zionism and privileges for Jews -- is entering a new, more
dangerous phase.

The problem for Israel is that for the past two decades
Palestinian legislators have been entering the Knesset not
as members of Zionist parties, as was the case for many
decades, but as representatives of independent Palestinian
parties. (A state claiming to be Jewish and democratic has
to make some concessions to its own propaganda, after

The result has been the emergence of an unexpected
political platform: the demand for Israel's constitutional
reform. Palestinian political parties have been calling
for Israel's transformation from a Jewish state into a
"state of all its citizens" -- or what the rest of us
would call a liberal democracy.

The figurehead for this political struggle has been the
legislator Azmi Bishara. A former philosophy professor,
Bishara has been running rings around Jewish politicians
in the Knesset for more than a decade, as well as exposing
to outsiders the sham of Israel's self-definition as a
"Jewish and democratic" state.

Even more worryingly he has also been making an
increasingly convincing case to his constituency of 1.2
million Palestinian citizens that, rather than challenging
the hundreds of forms of discrimination they face one law
at a time, they should confront the system that props up
the discrimination: the Jewish state itself. He has
started to persuade a growing number that they will never
enjoy equality with Jews as long as they live in ethnic

Bishara's campaign for a state of all its citizens has
faced an uphill struggle. Palestinian citizens spent the
first two decades after Israel's creation living under
martial law, a time during which their identity, history
and memories were all but crushed. Even today the minority
has no control over its educational curriculum, which is
set by officials charged with promoting Zionism, and its
schools are effectively run by the secret police, the Shin
Bet, through a network of collaborators among the teachers
and pupils.

Given this climate, it may not be surprising that in a
recent poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute 75
per cent of Palestinian citizens said they would support
the drafting of a constitution defining Israel as a Jewish
and democratic state (Israel currently has no
constitution). Interestingly, however, what concerned
commentators was the survey's small print: only a third of
the respondents felt strongly about their position
compared to more than half of those questioned in a
similar survey three years ago. Also, 72 per cent of
Palestinian citizens believed the principle of "equality"
should be prominently featured in such a constitution.

These shifts of opinion are at least partly a result of
Bishara's political work. He has been trying to persuade
Israel's Palestinian minority -- most of whom, whatever
the spin tells us, have had little practical experience of
participating in a democracy other than casting a vote --
that it is impossible for a Jewish state to enshrine
equality in its laws. Israel's nearest thing to a Bill of
Rights, the Basic Law on Freedom and Human Dignity,
intentionally does not mention equality anywhere in its

It is in this light that the news about Bishara that broke
in late April should be read. While he was abroad with his
family, the Shin Bet announced that he would face charges
of treason on his return. Under emergency regulations --
renewed by the Knesset yet again last week, and which have
now been in operation for nearly 60 years -- he could be
executed if found guilty. Bishara so far has chosen not to

Coverage of the Bishara case has concentrated on the two
main charges against him, which are only vaguely known as
the security services have been trying to prevent
disclosure of their evidence with a gagging order. The
first accusation -- for the consumption of Israel's Jewish
population -- is that Bishara actively helped Hizbullah in
its targeting of Israeli communities in the north during
the war against Lebanon last summer.

The Shin Bet claims this after months of listening in on
his phone conversations -- made possible by a change in
the law in 2005 that allows the security services to bug
legislators' phones. The other Palestinian MKs suspect
they are being subjected to the same eavesdropping after
the Attorney-General Mechahem Mazuz failed to respond to a
question from one, Taleb a-Sana, on whether the Shin Bet
was using this practice more widely.

Few informed observers, however, take this allegation
seriously. An editorial in Israel's leading newspaper
Haaretz compared Bishara's case to that of the Israeli
Jewish dissident Tali Fahima, who was jailed on trumped-up
charges that she translated a military plan, a piece of
paper dropped by the army in the Jenin refugee camp, on
behalf of a Palestinian militant, Zacharia Zbeidi, even
though it was widely known that Zbeidi was himself fluent
in Hebrew.

The editorial noted that it seemed likely the charge of
treason against Bishara "will turn out to be a tendentious
exaggeration of his telephone conversations and meetings
with Lebanese and Syrian nationals, and possibly also of
his expressions of support for their military activities.
It seems very doubtful that MK Bishara even has access to
defense-related secrets that he could sell to the enemy,
and like in the Fahima case, the fact that he identified
with the enemy during wartime appears to be what fueled
the desire to seek and find an excuse for bringing him to

Such doubts were reinforced by reports in the Israeli
media that the charge of treason was based on claims that
Bishara had helped Hizbullah conduct "psychological
warfare through the media".

The other allegation made by the secret police has a
different target audience. The Shin Bet claims that
Bishara laundered money from terrorist organisations. The
implication, though the specifics are unclear, is that
Bishara both helped fund terror and that he squirrelled
some of the money away, possibly hundreds of thousands of
dollars, presumably for his own benefit. This is supposed
to discredit him with his own constituency of Palestinian

It should be noted that none of this money has been found
in extensive searches of Bishara's home and office, and
the evidence is based on testimony from a far from
reliable source: a family of money-changers in East

This second charge closely resembles the allegations faced
by the only other Palestinian of national prominence in
Israel, Sheikh Raed Salah, head of the Islamic Movement
and a spiritual leader of the Palestinian minority. He was
arrested in 2003, originally on charges that he laundered
money for the armed wing of Hamas, helping them buy guns
and bombs.

As with Bishara, the Shin Bet had been bugging Salah's
every phone call for many months and had supposedly
accumulated mountains of evidence against him. Salah spent
more than two years in jail, the judges repeatedly
accepting the Shin Bet's advice that his requests for bail
be refused, as this secret evidence was studied in minute
detail at his lengthy trial. In the closing stages, as it
became clear that the Shin Bet's case was evaporating, the
prosecution announced a plea bargain. Salah agreed
(possibly unwisely, but understandably after two years in
jail) to admit minor charges of financial impropriety in
return for his release.

To this day, Salah does not know what he did wrong. His
organisation had funded social programmes for orphans,
students and widows in the occupied territories and had
submitted its accounts to the security services for
approval. In a recent interview, Salah observed that in
the new reality he and his party had discovered that it
was "as if helping orphans, sick persons, widows and
students had now become illegal activities in support of

Why was Salah targeted? In the same interview, he noted
that shortly before his arrest the prime minister of the
day, Ariel Sharon, had called for the outlawing of the
Islamic Movement, whose popularity was greatly concerning
the security establishment. Sharon was worried by what he
regarded as Salah's interference in Israel's crushing of
Palestinian nationalism.

Sharon's concern was two-fold: the Islamic Movement was
raising funds for welfare organisations in the occupied
territories at the very moment Israel was trying to
isolate and starve the Palestinian population there; and
Salah's main campaign, "al-Aqsa is in danger", was
successfully rallying Palestinians inside Israel to visit
the mosques of the Noble Sanctuary in the Old City of
Jersualem, the most important symbols of a future
Palestinian state.

Salah believed that responsibility fell to Palestinians
inside Israel to protect these holy places as Israel's
closure policies and its checkpoints were preventing
Muslims in the occupied territories from reaching them.
Salah also suspected that Israel was using the exclusion
of Palestinians under occupation from East Jerusalem to
assert its own claims to sovereignty over the site, known
to Jews as Temple Mount. This was where Sharon had made
his inflammatory visit backed by 1,000 armed guards that
triggered the intifada; and it was control of the Temple
Mount, much longed for by his predecessor, Ehud Barak,
that "blew up" the Camp David negotiations, as one of
Barak's advisers later noted. Salah had become a nuisance,
an obstacle to Israel realising its goals in East
Jersualem and possibly in the intifada, and needed to be

Salah had become a nuisance, an obstacle to Israel
realising its goals in East Jersualem and possibly in the
intifada, and needed to be neutralised. The trial removed
him from the scene at a key moment when he might have been
able to make a difference.

That now is the fate of Bishara.

Indications that the Shin Bet wanted Bishara's scalp over
his campaign for Israel's reform to a state of all its
citizens can be dated back to at least the start of the
second intifada in 2000. That was when, as Israel prepared
for a coming general election, the departing head of the
Shin Bet observed: "Bishara does not recognise the right
of the Jewish people to a state and he has crossed the
line. The decision to disqualify him [from standing for
election] has been submitted to the Attorney General." Who
expressed that view? None other than Ami Ayalon, currently
contesting the leadership of the Labor party and hoping to
become the official head of Israel's peace camp.

In the meantime, Bishara has been put on trial twice
(unnoticed the charges later fizzled out); he has been
called in for police interrogations on a regular basis; he
has been warned by a state commission of inquiry; and the
laws concerning Knesset immunity and travel to foreign
states have been changed specifically to prevent Bishara
from fulfilling his parliamentary duties.

True to Ayalon's advice, Bishara and his political party,
the National Democratic Assembly (NDA), were disqualified
by the Central Elections Committee during the 2003
elections. The committee cited the "expert" opinion of the
Shin Bet: "It is our opinion that the inclusion of the NDA
in the Knesset has increased the threat inherent in the
party. Evidence of this can also be found in the
ideological progress from the margins of Arab society
(such as a limited circle of intellectuals who dealt with
these ideas theoretically) to center stage. Today these
ideas [concerning a state of all its citizens] have a
discernible effect on the content of political discourse
and on the public 'agenda' of the Arab sector."

But on this occasion the Shin Bet failed to get its way.
Bishara's disqualification was overturned on appeal by a
narrow majority of the Supreme Court's justices.

The Shin Bet's fears of Bishara resurfaced with a
vengeance in March this year, when the Ma'ariv newspaper
reported on a closed meeting between the Prime Minister,
Ehud Olmert, and senior Shin Bet officials "concerning the
issue of the Arab minority in Israel, the extent of its
steadily decreasing identification with the State and the
rise of subversive elements".

Ma'ariv quoted the assessment of the Shin Bet:
"Particularly disturbing is the growing phenomenon of
'visionary documents' among the various elites of Israeli
Arabs. At this time, there are four different visionary
documents sharing the perception of Israel as a state of
all citizens and not as a Jewish state. The isolationist
and subversive aims presented by the elites might
determine a direction that will win over the masses."

In other words, the secret police were worried that the
influence of Bishara's political platform was spreading.
The proof was to be found in the four recent documents
cited by the Shin Bet and published by very diffrerent
groups: the Democratic Constitution by the Adalah legal
centre; the Ten Points by the Mossawa political lobbying
group; the Future Vision by the traditionally conservative
political body comprising mostly mayors known as the High
Follow-Up Committee; and the Haifa Declaration, overseen
by a group of academics known as Mada.

What all these documents share in common is two
assumptions: first, that existing solutions to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict are based on two states and
that in such an arrangement the Palestinian minority will
continue living inside Israel as citizens; and second,
that reforms of Israel are needed if the state is to
realise equality for all citizens, as promised in its
Declaration of Independence.

Nothing too subversive there, one would have thought. But
that was not the view of the Shin Bet.

Following the report in Ma'ariv, the editor of a weekly
Arab newspaper wrote to the Shin Bet asking for more
information. Did the Shin Bet's policy not constitute an
undemocratic attempt to silence the Palestinian minority
and its leaders, he asked. A reply from the Shin Bet was
not long in coming. The secret police had a responsibility
to guard Israel "against subversive threats", it was
noted. "By virtue of this responsibility, the Shin Bet is
required to thwart subversive activity by elements who
wish to harm the nature of the State of Israel as a
democratic Jewish State -- even if they act by means of
democratically provided tools -- by virtue of the
principle of 'defensive democracy'."

Questioned by Israeli legal groups about this policy when
it became public, the head of the Shin Bet, Yuval Diskin,
wrote a letter clarifying what he meant. Israel had to be
protected from anyone "seeking to change the state's basic
principles while abolishing its democratic character or
its Jewish character". He was basing his opinion on a law
passed in 2002 that charges the Shin Bet with safeguarding
the country from "threats of terror, sabotage,

In other words, in the view of the Shin Bet, a Jewish and
democratic state is democratic only if you are a Jew or a
Zionist. If you try to use Israel's supposed democracy to
challenge the privileges reserved for Jews inside a Jewish
state, that same state is entitled to defend itself
against you.

The extension in the future of this principle from Bishara
to the other Palestinian MKs and then on to the wider
Palestinian community inside Israel should not be doubted.
In the wake of the Bishara case, Israel Hasson, a former
deputy director of the Shin Bet and now a right-wing
Knesset member, described Israel's struggle against its
Palestinian citizens as "a second War of Independence" --
the war in 1948 that founded Israel by cleansing it of 80
per cent of its Palestinians.

The Shin Bet is not, admittedly, a democratic institution,
even if it is operating in a supposedly democratic
environment. So how do the state's more accountable
officials view the Shin Bet's position? Diskin's reply had
a covering letter from Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz,
the country's most senior legal officer. Mazuz wrote: "The
letter of the Shin Bet director was written in
coordination with the attorney general and with his
agreement, and the stance detailed in it is acceptable to
the attorney general."

So now we know. As Israel's Palestinian politicians have
long been claiming, a Jewish and democratic state is
intended as a democracy for Jews only. No one else is
allowed a say -- or even an opinion.

Jonathan Cook, a journalist based in Nazareth, Israel, is
the author of Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the
Jewish and Democratic State (Pluto Press, 2006). His
website is www.jkcook.net.

1 comment:

Suzanne said...

This is a great article. And it tells it like it is.

Israel, like the U.S. is run by a group of psychopaths who have their own agenda and are willing to complete it at all costs.

I think that another good article, that compliments this one is "An Answer to the Israel Lobby - Ponerology". It can be read here:


If we are to do anything to get this world back from the craziness that it is in, this article, and the book it talks about, are essential for all of us to read and learn about. We can make a difference if we only educate ourselves about what is really going on in this world.