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Israel's slipping democracy

This beacon of freedom is becoming more like its authoritarian neighbors.

By Nir Eisikovits / September 24, 2008


We Israelis like to think of ourselves as "the only democracy in the Middle East." The label has a variety of uses: We invoke it to explain our special relationship with the United States, to set ourselves apart from our authoritarian Arab neighbors, to account for our remarkable economic success, and to justify occasional requests for EU membership.

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There are, of course, well-known problems with this democratic self-understanding. Our basic constitutional documents speak of a "Jewish democratic state" while about 20 percent of our citizens are non-Jews. We have no separation of synagogue and state. We have, for over 40 years, maintained illegal settlements and a harsh military occupation in most of the Palestinian territories captured in 1967.

And yet, Israel is certainly the most democratic nation in the Middle East. Iran reportedly executes homosexuals, Syria regularly detains human rights activists and dissenters, Egypt jails men essentially for being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, Lebanon fails to exercise control over its territory, and Turkey considers banning its largest political party.

We, on the other hand, have a vibrant free press, an independent judiciary, an active parliament, and, as attested by the recent legal troubles of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who announced his resignation this week, independent-minded prosecutors.

But being the most democratic nation in a region marked by despotism is not the same as being democratic. And recently, indications have accumulated that Israel is becoming more rather than less like its neighbors.

Earlier this summer, Israel's parliament, the Knesset, passed two troubling pieces of legislation: the first (which still awaits final ratification) exempts the state from compensating Palestinians harmed during Israel Defense Force (IDF) operations in the territories.

The second, aimed at curtailing the travel of Arab members of the Kenesset (MK), states that any Israeli who has visited an "enemy country" shall be considered a supporter of armed struggle against the Jewish state (unless proven otherwise), and will be prevented from running for parliament in the seven years following the visit.