Lessons learned in Israel in the battle between security and the free exchange of ideas can benefit the debate in the United States.As Israel’s military wages war against Palestinian guerillas in refugee camps and West Bank towns, academics and liberal journalists have begun questioning the effects of the conflict on the nation’s democratic values and institutions.
Targeted killings, calls to prosecute government critics, continued polarization of the left and right, the growing power of undemocratic, ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset, and an economic recession are threatening democracy as Israel knows it, some Israeli public policy analysts are saying.
Still, most experts agree the country is not about to witness a military coup, nor is it likely to see its electoral system collapse. The concern is over the loss of civil rights and violation of human rights, primarily in the territories, said Menachem Hofnung, a professor of political science at Hebrew University of Jerusalem at a conference exploring the tensions between security and democracy held at the university on April 11.
The continuing conflict in Israel is forcing a more serious debate over these questions on an ongoing basis than has yet taken place in the United States and other western countries.
“The future fate of the territories is the main issue on the agenda of Israeli democracy,” Hofnung said. “Instead of the government dealing with matters on the agenda in other democracies, we see the government dealing with targeted killings, whether to pull back to that line or this line, and if government critics should be prosecuted.”
Yehezkel Dror, a Hebrew University political science professor who served as a senior policy adviser to the Rand Corp., a nonprofit U.S. organization that helps improve policy-making through research and analysis, downplayed those worries, saying he thinks most of the complaints about Israeli democracy are related to humanitarian, rather than political, values.
“Historically speaking, all statecraft has required some ‘dirty hands,’ which means sacrificing values for more important ones. Israel is in a tragic situation, or in a situation of bad moral luck where the environment forces on it quite a lot of dirty hands to insure survival,” Dror said.
And as the United States struggles with terrorism as well, Dror said Israel is becoming “a paradigm of what is happening in the West.”
“Facing potential suicide killers with mass killing weapons will require the West to give up a lot of values for survival… values of privacy, freedom of movement…”
Israel’s long history of dealing with terrorism has made it accustomed to such sacrifices, especially since national security has always been in the hands of the military, said Reuven Pedatzur, a Tel Aviv University political science professor who specializes in security studies.
“In Israel there are no established bodies that deal with strategic planning, there is only the Israel Defense Force and therefore, when the government or Cabinet or prime minister needs to put together a new policy on security they only have before them what the IDF brings. They have no other alternative.” Pedatzur said, adding that in those circumstances, whatever the generals say is considered holy.
Of the 15 chiefs of the general staff in the history of the Israel Defense Force, two have gone on to become prime ministers – Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin – and six have served as Cabinet ministers. Today the Cabinet has five retired generals, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Whether or not the current conflict continues, the generals’ role in security policy is not likely to change. The only prime minister to dismiss military advice in the history of Israel was Rabin in the signing of the Oslo Accords, Dror said. The military’s role has not weakened Israel’s democratic political institutions, only narrowed its decision-making process, he said.
“There is no danger to Israel’s political democracy. There are free elections here and nothing is stopping them,” Dror said.
Hofnung said the future of Israeli democracy can only be assured through a clear separation from the Palestinians, which will, in turn, decrease the frequency of the suicide bombings.
“A democracy is not built to function in a situation of continuous war, especially one where the lines of battle are not clear, when the identity of the enemy is not clear, when there is no security or safety in the country and when there is an economic recession,” Hofnung said.
“I am not saying that separation is the medicine to heal everything, but it is the first step to bringing more safety, and a little more logic and routine into everyday life. After that, one can work out a peace settlement or at least some kind of extended cease fire.”