Jonathan Gurwitz: Arabs hate Israel, love its freedom

Web Posted: 05/08/2005 12:00 AM CDT
San Antonio Express-News

The Middle East is teeming with signs of change. In Iraq, a new group of leaders is attempting to lay the foundation for a democratic society. In Lebanon, a peaceful, popular revolt forced an end to the Syrian occupation and prompted upcoming elections to restore that country's democratic tradition. In Jordan and Morocco, enlightened rulers have embarked on programs of liberalization.

Yet for all the talk about this new spring of Arab democracy, there is one Middle Eastern country where Arab citizens have for decades had the uninterrupted right to participate in free and open elections, organize political parties spanning the ideological spectrum, where freedom of conscience and of the media are rights guaranteed under the law and an independent judiciary with Arab judges and justices — including at the Supreme Court — render decisions based on the law, not on the whims of kings, dictators or ideology.

That country is Israel.

There are many galling facts about Israel's existence that agitate its enemies, most notably its refusal to be wiped from the map by a coalition of nations with 40 times its population and 600 times its geographic area.

Yet the most pernicious aspect of Israel's existence, so far as the autocrats of the region are concerned, is that it has remained a democracy, granting to its citizens — both Jews and Arabs, who constitute 20 percent of its population — rights almost nonexistent in the Arab world.

The resilience of democracy in Israeli society, despite six decades of living on a war footing, has produced some ironic paradoxes.

Last year as part of discussions about territorial compromise with the Palestinian Authority, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed transferring an area of Arab villages in northern Israel to a new Palestinian state. The proposal would have placed about 200,000 Arab citizens of Israel under Palestinian sovereignty by simply redrawing the internationally recognized, pre-1967 border.

Israel would have received in exchange an equivalent geographic area on the West Bank. No one would have moved. The plan simply was a 1-for-1, territorial exchange that put Arabs in Palestine and Jews in Israel.

Who could object to such a sensible compromise? The Arab citizens of Israel.

"I want to live under the democratic law of Israel, not the law of Arafat," a resident of the village of Muakala told the Jerusalem Post.

"Despite the discrimination and injustice faced by Arab citizens, the democracy and justice in Israel is better than the democracy and justice in Arab and Islamic countries," Newsday quoted Hashem Abdel Rahman, the mayor of Umm el-Fahm.

"We are talking about a dangerous, anti-democratic suggestion, which will bring about a schism between the state and its Arab citizens," Ahmad Tibi, an Arab Israeli member of Knesset, told the Jerusalem Post.

Last month I visited with Pierre Rehov, a French filmmaker who has produced documentaries about the Arab-Israeli conflict, including "The Road to Jenin" and "Hostages of Hatred." He is currently completing work on a documentary about suicide bombers.

From his extensive interviews, Rehov finds a schism in Palestinian society between those who have had contact with and want to emulate Israeli democracy and those committed to violence and benighted by extremism.

"Democracy," said Rehov, "is a contaminating force."

Days before I spoke with Rehov, the lethal nature of that schism became apparent on the beaches of the Gaza Strip. Hamas gunmen murdered Yusra Azzami, a 20-year-old woman, as she sat in a car with her fiancé. Her crime: The great heroes of the intifada suspected her of "immoral behavior."

"Palestinians hate Israel," Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh told me earlier this year, "but they love the Israeli system of freedom."

Israeli democracy — which this week marks its 57th year — is imperfect, buffeted by the vicissitudes of an existential conflict.

Israel's Arab neighbors, including a nascent Palestinian state, could, however, do worse than to emulate it.

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