In this essay, capitalized “Democracy” means what it means in South Africa: equal rights for all the citizens of Palestine. Democracy’s enemy is apartheid, the present form of government in Palestine. Another term for apartheid in Palestine is Zionism, the ranks of former liberal Zionists swelling steadily as one by one we reluctantly, belatedly come to acknowledge the equation. “Palestine” here means the land between the river and the sea. I don’t know what the land will actually be called under Democracy, though a geographic name like Palestine—the name the pre-1948 yishuv themselves used—would certainly be more fitting than a sectarian name like “Israel.” If the name indeed turns out to be Palestine, Jewish citizens whose roots in the land go back 30 or 60 years will be no less Palestinian than Arab citizens whose roots go back five or ten centuries. Hilltop youth would become just another Palestinian police problem. Tel Aviv and Birzeit Universities would both be Palestinian institutions of higher learning. My purpose in this post is not to rehearse the reasons why many observers believe Democracy is Palestine’s ultimate future. Rather I want to call attention to what seem to me to be obvious and urgent implications for today’s anti-apartheid struggle.
The urgent need for a government in waiting
Little time elapsed between when South African Democracy still seemed a far-off utopian dream and its ultimate triumph. But the African National Congress was not caught off-guard. For decades they’d been creating a government-in-waiting, so that when F.W. de Klerk’s Nationalist Party voluntarily surrendered power, it was to an established entity in whose commitment to just treatment they could have some confidence. And how about Palestine’s new leadership: is it ready to govern on short notice? Is an alternative to the apartheid regime being vigorously developed, an alternative at the same time just and practical?
The task will much more difficult in Palestine than in South Africa. That’s because Jews and non-Jews are about equally numerous. Any workable government will have to be a non-sectarian coalition to whom the apartheid leadership will reluctantly relinquish power despite having overwhelming superiority in armed force. The ANC, in contrast, represented 90 percent of the citizens and had no need to build a governing coalition with anti-apartheid whites.
A Democracy list?
A “list” in parliamentary elections with proportional representation is a grouping of parliamentary candidates standing together as a single political party or party coalition. Elections to the Israeli Knesset and Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) are 100 percent and 50 percent by proportional representation, respectively. Both venues are plausible if imperfect homes for the government in waiting.
In Israel it’s especially easy to create a list with real prospects of Knesset seats, as exemplified by political neophyte Yair Lapid and his brand-new Yesh Atid party, which has a good chance to gain seats in the upcoming elections. Two of the sitting non-Jewish parties, Hadash (with communist roots) and Balad (Haneen Zouabi’s party), already have “Democratic” as part of their names and ideologies. Hadash has always been explicitly a joint Jewish and non-Jewish party, and its four sitting MKs include one Jew (Dov Khenin) and three non-Jews.
Meanwhile, the PLC’s 66 list seats may be dominated by Hamas (29 members) and Fatah (28 members), but they also include Mustafa Barghouti’s secular Palestine National Initiative (2 seats) and Salam Fayyad’s and Hanan Ashrawi’s Third Way (2 seats). Uri Davis, born to an Israeli Jewish family, calls himself Palestinian and has been elected to Fatah’s Revolutionary Council (though he is not a member of the PLC).
I don’t think there are rules that would explicitly prohibit a single Democracy party (as I’ll call it here) from standing for both the Knesset and the PLC, though of course the lists in the two elections would have different people. The hypothetical party’s platform would have to be carefully worded so as to survive the inevitable attempt by right-wing Zionists to disqualify it from the Knesset. But a vigorous assertion of core values of Democracy, especially equal rights for all citizens, could not be grounds for disqualification even in Israel’s increasingly right-wing politics.
A non-nationalist Democracy party would of course be tiny initially in both legislatures, with virtually no prospect of becoming part of a governing coalition. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t vigorously pursue small-d democracy initiatives in both venues, while at the same time keeping its eye on the prize, patiently paving the way for the big-D Democracy to come.
Academic boycott may stand in the way
Consider the extreme hypothetical case posited by the admirable Ahmed Moor on Mondoweiss on March 12, 2010: “Dr. Z is an anti-Zionist history lecturer at an Israeli institute of higher learning who actively contributes to the delegitimization of Zionism through his research. He feels strongly that Palestine/Israel ought to be one country and that Jewish privilege has no place in a modern democratic state. He is, in every way, an ally to the cause for equal rights in Palestine/Israel. So, why do I feel he should be boycotted?” Why indeed? Even if we agree with Moor’s “personal judgment…that Israeli academic institutions are not independent of…Zionist…political aims and goals,” is it wise to boycott the Neve Gordons of Israeli public discourse? These rare academic prophets, along with non-academic activists like Jeff Halper, are, and must be seen to be, in the vanguard of a new, truly Palestinian democracy, in which Dr. Z and his university are no less Palestinian than Ahmed Moor.
The neoliberal threat
South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement may have triumphed politically, but it collapsed on the economic front. The economic principles of the ANC’s 1955 Freedom Charter were abandoned in favor of a neoliberal regime that has created some of the bleakest economic disparity in the world today. And much the same disaster, a second Nakba, looms in Palestine. Silwan will be sacked no less surely if the City of David theme park is run by Disney than if it is run by Elad. The neoliberal threat adds urgency to the need to create an alternative coalition government in waiting: a leadership with sufficient credibility among all Palestinians, including Jews, to guide the future Democracy firmly toward liberty and justice for all.