What direction will Israel take now?
Three pieces of legislation proposed recently by members of Israel’s Knesset have been making headlines: banning the commemoration of the Nakba; introducing a mandatory ‘loyalty oath’ to the Zionist state; and criminalising public declarations of opposition to Israel being a ‘Jewish state’.
None of these efforts may actually become law – the loyalty oath has already been voted down by the cabinet’s law committee. The Nakba bill though has now been tweaked, so that rather than straightforwardly outlawing any events, there will be economic sanctions for the local authorities and organisations involved.
The response in the Western media to the sight of of 47 MKs voting for prison sentences for anti-Zionists has often come in the form of a warning that Israel is in danger of turning into a racist state. Taking into account other authoritarian trends, this assessment sees Israel’s democracy as under threat by the far-right groupings within Netanyahu’s government.
But there is only an element of truth here, and far more that misleads. Israel is not in danger of becoming a racist state, because it already is one. That such a statement can still shock is testament to Israel’s propaganda efforts over the years in promulgating the ‘Middle East’s Only Democracy’ myth.
In Israel, its own Palestinian citizens are forbidden from buying certain land, or living in particular communities, while para-state bodies (like the Jewish Agency or Jewish National Fund) are constitutionally mandated to privilege Jews. Fundamentally, of course, creating and maintaining a Jewish state continues to require the denationalisation of the ethnically cleansed Palestinians who are forbidden from returning on account of their not being Jewish.
That is all without even considering the fact that for the last 42 years Israel has been subjecting millions of Palestinians to the military rule of an apartheid regime of ethnic separation and land confiscation. As Roane Carey noted in The Nation last week, “how can a state that imprisons 4 million Palestinians behind ghetto walls, bypass roads and a blockade, and treats another 1.5 million as second-class citizens, be democratic?”
There is, though, something new in these developments. Since 1948, Israel has been careful to mask the state’s intrinsic discrimination, and has seen no need to resort to the kind of blatant racism of separate public toilets – what Uri Davis has called ‘petty apartheid’.
There is now evidence of a turn towards openly racist legislation; see, for example, the Citizenship and Entry in Israel Law, applied since 2003, which bars family unification between Palestinians from the Occupied Territories and Palestinian citizens of Israel. There is also an increased intolerance towards dissent, and now, the legislative proposals of fanatical ruling parties.
Some have claimed that Netanyahu could do a ‘Nixon-to-China’ peace bid, securing the kind of deal a more dovish government could not. What seems more likely is that a hard right Knesset majority will bring out into the open the latent racism that’s always been there.
Netanyahu himself, with his demand that the Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state and the Palestinian refusal to do so, may also unwittingly draw attention to the problem with this formulation – a problem that goes to the core of the conflict more than talk of outposts, ‘natural growth’ and confidence-building measures ever could.