By Ramzy Baroud
Tunisia is the Middle East’s greatest democratic success story, according to the findings of the V-Dem Annual Democracy Report 2019. One of the world’s best-regarded annual reports on democracy and good governance, it is produced by the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. While Tunisians can be proud of the prospect of democracy in their country, Israelis have little to be proud of. A country that has long prided itself — however misleadingly — on being “the only democracy in the Middle East” has lost that title to Tunisia, a North African Arab nation of just over 11 million people.
Understandably, Tunisians might find their overall ranking ahead of well-established democracies somewhat meaningless, considering that the politically unstable country is still undergoing a painful transition to democracy. However, considering that it has registered a sizable improvement in every democratic aspect examined by the V-Dem report, Tunisia truly deserves the institute’s title of “star pupil of democratization of the past 10 years.”
Israel, however, has once again been exposed for its democratic charade. Since it was established atop the ruins of the Palestinian homeland, Israel has relentlessly touted its democratic virtues, while excluding millions of Palestinian Arabs from any form of participation.
There are 5 million Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Not only are they denied any real democracy, they are also denied the freedoms of speech, expression and movement. Meanwhile, the 2 million Palestinians who are citizens of Israel are treated as second or third-class citizens, subjected to numerous discriminatory laws that aim to curtail their political, cultural and economic aspirations and rights.
In fact, institutional racism and fearmongering against Arab minorities has been the rallying cry of most of Israel’s political parties, whether on the right, the left or in the middle ground. No wonder, then, that Israel recently received its worst ever rating in Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World” report. It classified Israel as among the world’s 25 “declining democracies” — a list that, unsurprisingly, also included the US.
In its report, Freedom House had many harsh words for right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who it described as being “at the vanguard of nationalistic and chauvinistic populism.” It went on: “Netanyahu has taken increasingly drastic steps to maintain the loyalty of far-right groups, entrenching and expanding West Bank settlements at the expense of the moribund Palestinian peace process, banning foreign activists based on their opposition to such policies, and enacting a discriminatory law that reserved the right of self-determination in Israel to the Jewish people.”
This partly explains the significant six-point drop in Israel’s score in the democracy index since 2009, which is seen by Freedom House as “an unusually large decline for an established democracy.”
One is left to ponder why this belated acknowledgment of Israel’s undemocratic credentials has only come out now, considering the fact that Israel should also have scored poorly in all indexes of democratic standards at any point in the past. Certainly, Netanyahu has managed to decimate any Israeli claim to true democracy thanks to his government’s assault on civil liberties and freedoms, even within Israel’s Jewish constituencies. But was it fair that Israel was still classified as a “liberal democracy” when millions of Palestinian Arabs and other minority groups were the main and perhaps only victims of Israel’s institutional racism and discrimination?
In other words, it seems that Israel only began losing its democratic accolades when Netanyahu dared upset the sociopolitical equilibrium among Israel’s Jewish, not Arab, population. Be that as it may, the jig is up. If the Freedom House report was not clear enough regarding Israel’s failed democracy, the V-Dem Report is even more damning and detailed.
According to the Swedish report’s Political Corruption Index, Israel ranks 35th in the world, just ahead of Botswana but behind Cape Verde. Interestingly, the UAE is seven spots ahead of Israel, and one ahead of the US. If Israel’s score on this indicator was not bad enough, it was actually the country’s best performance among all the report’s indexes. It occupied 51st spot on the Liberal Democracy Index, 53rd on the Egalitarian Component Index, 55th on the Electoral Democracy Index, 57th on the Liberal Component Index, and 76th on the Deliberative Component Index.
Particularly revealing is Israel’s score in the Participatory Component Index, where it claimed 80th position, lagging behind Zambia, Somaliland and Myanmar — the last of these being the focal point of international attention over its massacres and ethnic cleansing of its Rohingya Muslim minority.
This is not the least bit surprising, as Israel has long perceived its Palestinian Arab population — in fact all Palestinians — as a “demographic time bomb,” which can only be defused through exclusion, marginalization or even outright ethnic cleansing. The Nation-State Law of 2018 was not the innocent attempt of a country eager to define itself (seven decades after its founding), but a deliberate effort to lay the legal groundwork for a prolonged system of apartheid.
Netanyahu summed up this sentiment perfectly when he exclaimed, prior to the March 2015 general election, that “the right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves.” In Netanyahu’s mind — and by the calculation of many mainstream Israeli politicians — the participation of Arabs in the democratic process is a threat that must be eliminated, just as their increasing numbers are a demographic threat that has to be thwarted at any cost.
In truth, the Freedom House and V-Dem Institute reports are not conveying any new information regarding Israel’s democratic status. Israel never deserved the badge of democracy that it used to rationalize all of its wars, sieges and mistreatment of Palestinians.
Even that false pretense of democracy has now been lost, likely forever. According to the democratic standards created by Western institutions, Tunisia is now the only democracy in the Middle East. More important than badges and titles, however, is the fact that Israel should now be exposed for its crimes against Palestinians, without such long overdue criticisms having to be filtered through Israel’s false democratic discourse.
• Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of The Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is “The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story” (Pluto Press, London). Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine studies from the University of Exeter. Twitter: @RamzyBaroud