AP Assails Israel’s Democracy

Benjamin Netanyahu’s unexpected landslide victory in last week’s elections and the ensuing “displeasure felt in some quarters,” as the Associated Press puts it, prompted the influential wire service to pen a 1,500-word length feature assailing Israel’s democracy (“AP Analysis: Is Israel democratic? Not so clear“). Dan Perry, AP’s Middle East editor, opines that “with the occupation of the West Bank grinding on toward the half-century mark, and with Netanyahu’s election-week suggestion that no change is imminent, hard questions arise.”

Those questions — the central and most inflammatory one being the one opens the article: “Is Israel a democracy? The answer is not so straightforward” — are premised on numerous false assumptions and key omissions:

• Perry ignores the reality that Israel’s prolonged presence in the West Bank is due to its victory in a defensive war with Jordan. At the same time, AP downplays Israeli offers to handover territory to Palestinians on multiple occasions and the fact that Palestinian leaders have rebuffed or ignored these proposals.

• Without citing any evidence, Perry states that “among Israelis themselves, there is increasing angst over the fact that their country of 8 million people also controls some 2.5 million West Bank Palestinians who have no voting rights for its parliament.” In truth, there is widespread understanding that under current circumstances a two-state solution, though perhaps ultimately desirable, is not currently obtainable. Indeed, a February 2015 poll carried out by the Israeli Democracy Institute (IDI) found that a clear majority (63.5%) strongly or moderately agrees with the claim that “No matter which party forms the next government, the peace process with the Palestinians will not advance because there is no solution to the disagreements between the sides.”

• Moreover, according to the IDI, “a large majority of the Jewish public (again, 63.5%) considers that the Palestinian leadership would not show greater flexibility and readiness for concessions even if a government headed by HaMachane HaTzioni [the Zionist Union party] were to emerge from the elections.”

• Perry’s primary complaint is that Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank, non-Israeli citizens living on land that Israel has not annexed (and in the case of the former, from which Israel has fully withdrawn) cannot vote in Israeli elections. The legitimacy of other Western countries has not been called into question due to longstanding administration of territories. (After World War II, the U.S. occupied Japan –in fact, America still maintains military bases there– but Japanese citizens never voted in American elections. But of course the idea that America is not necessarily or fully a democracy is a conceit of the fringe, not one promoted by the likes of AP or other mainstream, sober news outlets.)In short, “Is Israel democratic: Not so clear” is as faulty and flawed as another recent AP investigation on Israel’s conduct in Gaza last summer (“AP investigation: Israeli strikes on Gaza homes killed mostly civilians“). Given the influential news outlet’s two recent hit pieces skewed against Israel, which fail to uphold professional journalistic standards, hard questions arise. Were one to borrow from the style of AP’s headline — “Is Israel democratic? Not so clear” — one might ask, “Is AP a reputable news outlet or a third-rate propaganda outfit? The answer is becoming ever clearer.”

Perry sets up the false argument that Israel’s democracy is questionable by including West Bank and Gaza Arabs, non-citizens of Israel, in the total number of Arabs who don’t have the Israeli vote. He writes:

But among Israeli themselves, there is increasing angst over the fact that their country of 8 million people also controls some 2.5 million Arab citizens of “Israel proper” the Holy Land would be home to a population of some 12 million, equally divided between Arabs and Jews.

If the 2 million Palestinians of Gaza – a territory dominated indirectly by Israel – were added to the equation, then together with the 2 million Arab citizens of “Israel proper” the Holy Land would be home to a population of some 12 million, equally divided between Arabs and Jews.

Of the Arabs, only a third have voting rights. These are the “Israeli Arabs” who live in the areas that became Israel in the 1948-49 war, which established the country’s borders.

An accurate characterization of the state of Israel’s democracy with respect to the voting rights of its Arab citizens would be that all Israeli Arabs are entitled to the right to vote. (Those living in Jerusalem are entitled to Israeli citizenship, and therefore to vote, but only a small minority of them have chosen to exercise this right.) In what other context have any non-citizens of a country been given the right to vote in that country’s national election? Did Iraqis or Afghans under US occupation get to cast a vote for the American president? When the United States occupied Japan for several years after World War II, was American democracy called into question because the Japanese could not vote in U.S. elections? Why, then, does Perry suggest that Gazans and West Bank Palestinians who are not citizens of Israel are being deprived of a right to vote in Israeli elections?

He argues that because Israel builds settlements in the West Bank, and the Israeli residents of those communities are permitted to vote unlike West Bank Palestinians, then there is additional reason to question Israeli democracy — especially because Israel generally does not allow absentee balloting from its citizens abroad. Yes, Israel has a different relationship with the West Bank than it does with foreign countries. That territory is considered the birthplace of the Jewish people. The international community had once intended as a Jewish state. The drafters of UN Security Council Resolution 242 envisioned that Israel would retain sections of it. Most importantly in the context of a conversation about Israeli democracy, it is a disputed territory that has been subject to negotiations, with both left- and right-leaning Israeli governments intending to keep the minority of land on which a majority of settlers lives — an idea that international negotiators and even Palestinian ministers have accepted.

Bringing Gazans into the equation is even more problematic given that Israel has fully withdrawn from the territory. But Perry tries to overcome this inconvenient challenge with verbal acrobats, describing it “a territory dominated indirectly by Israel.” Later, he adds: “Many feel they are still occupied: Israel controls the airspace and sea access and together with Egypt blockades them by land.” But since when does a country’s legal blockade of a territory constitute an erosion of that country’s democracy?

Israeli Initiatives Ignored

The downplaying of Israel’s repeated efforts to extricate itself from the
West Bank via multiple rejected peace offers are another major shortcoming in the piece. Thus, ignoring Israeli withdrawals from Palestinian cities as per the Oslo Accords, along with rejected peace offers under Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, Perry errs in the 14th paragraph: “The supposedly temporary arrangement shows no signs of a change – at least not one initiated by Israel.” In fact, the reason there has been no sign of change is that Israel has repeatedly initiated, and Palestinian leaders have repeatedly walked away from, attempts to make peace.

Indeed, one finds a hint of this inconvenient reality buried 12 paragraphs later, when the writer raises a point that belies his false portrait of an Israel which has not made any effort to curtail its West Bank presence: “two Israeli governments more amenable than Netanyahu’s made far-reaching offers to the Palestinians for a state in all of Gaza and more than 90 percent of the West Bank, with a foothold in Jerusalem.” Still, he fails to note that the Palestinian leadership rejected those expansive offers.

Moreover, he ignores the fact that in 2009 Netanyahu’s watch, Israel committed to a 10-month settlement freeze to jumpstart talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But for the first nine months, Abbas refused to even negotiate.

Palestinian Rejectionism Ignored

Perry’s narrative about an intransigent Israel which refuses to release its grip on the West Bank necessarily rests on depicting the Palestinians as victims with no agency or responsibility of their own. But a review of the historical record, including AP’s own reports of the last few years, shows a different picture, one in which the Palestinian leadership consistently spurned Israeli overtures:

I will wait for Hamas to accept international commitments. I will wait for Israel to freeze settlements.Until then, in the West Bank we have a good reality . . . the people are living a normal life.

– Mahmoud Abbas to journalist Jackson Diehl, May 29, 2009

Abbas says there is no point in talking peace while Israel builds homes on occupied territories claimed by the Palestinians, and he has made no secret about his unhappiness with Washington’s inability to halt settlement activity. Israel counters that the settlement issue should be discussed in negotiations instead of being made a precondition.

– Associated Press, April 28, 2011

The Palestinians have refused to renew talks without a complete settlement freeze and are pursuing a unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations in September. Israel wants talks without preconditions and says the settlements should be one of the issues on the table.

– Associated Press, June 22, 2011

Abbas aide Saeb Erekat reiterated the Palestinian demand that first, Israel stop building in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, occupied areas the Palestinians want for a future state. Israel rejects any preconditions for talks, and the government official renewed Israel’s call for direct talks between the two sides.

– Associated Press, Nov. 14, 2011

Perry shows more harsh cynicism in his discussion of why Israel has not annexed the West Bank. Obscuring the fact that Israelis themselves largely oppose annexation of the West Bank and Gaza, he distorts:

Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 but Israel never annexed them, both for fear of world reaction and due to concerns about millions more Palestinians gaining the vote.

In fact, Israel has not annexed the West Bank because that controversial move has for decades been anathema to much of the Israeli public, and multiple Israeli governments have attempted to turn that land over to the Palestinians in order to secure a peace agreement. For instance, a June 2014 survey carried out by the Israel Democracy Institute found that nearly 53 percent of Israelis (Jews and Arabs) questioned opposed “officially annex[ing] the areas that are important to [Israel] for settlement and security in the West Bank/Judea and Samaria.” Presumably, if that proposed annexation would be extended to the entire West Bank as well as Gaza, that opposition would be significantly higher.

On what basis does Perry conclude that Israel has not annexed these lands due to fear of the Palestinian vote and world reaction? There are of course other factors which could sway public opinion against the move – such as the desire to allow Palestinians to run their own lives, the hope to withdraw from the land in an effort to reduce friction and achieve security, and the aspiration to separate from the Palestinian public which has been largely incited to hate both Israel and Jews.

But it is a piece that, echoing so many screeds on fringe anti-Israel websites, seems to relish concluding the worst about Israel. AP could project such cynicism onto every country in the world: The US doesn’t take over Iraq oil fields because it is afraid of world opinion. Germany doesn’t invade Alsace because it is afraid of French guns. India doesn’t fire nuclear weapons at Pakistan because it is afraid of annihilation. Only Israel, it seems, has such base calculations.

Note, by contrast, how Israel’s opponents are shielded in the piece. In his explanation of why so many Jerusalem Arabs have refrained from taking on Israeli citizenship even though Israel offers them that possibility, Perry writes, “Most have rejected it -whether out of solidarity with the idea of Palestine or for fear of future retribution.” Future retribution from whom? Not Israel, though readers of this hostile piece are likely to assume this is whom Jerusalem Arabs fear. In fact, it is Palestinian officials who have warned Arab Jerusalemites against, and even issued edicts prohibiting taking Israeli citizenship. But just as the piece omits the inconvenient fact that Palestinians rejected repeated peace offers, so to does it fail to point out that Palestinians undermine the ability of Jerusalem Arabs to maximize their democratic potential. As a former AP insider has pointed out (See here, here and here), the AP believes it is Israel that should be condemned, not Palestinians.

The Singular Israeli Voice

Perry quotes just one Israeli in his 1,500 words about the faux democracy:

“Israel is galloping toward an anti-democratic, bi-national future saturated with hatred and ra
cism,” wrote columnist Ravit Hecht in the liberal Haaretz daily, echoing the rising stridency that has taken root among liberals in days since the vote.

Perhaps Perry has misread Israeli public opinion because he relied too heavily on what he called “the liberal Haaretz daily,” whose publisher has publicly acknowledged that the paper’s aim is to support “the two-state solution and the right to Palestinian self-determination, which will enable Israel to rid itself of the burdens of territorial occupation and the control of another.”

The Associated Press, like its favored source, Haaretz, is increasingly neglecting its commitments to professional codes of journalistic conduct in favor of a particular political viewpoint in which Israel – which “claim[s] to be the only true democracy in the Middle East” but really isn’t – allegedly bears singular responsible for ongoing conflict, and is hardly a democracy at that.

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