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Israeli Apartheid? To Arabs, It’s a Model Democracy

Yesterday, I wrote about a crucial legal fallacy behind the “Israeli apartheid” canard. But you don’t actually need to know anything about the Geneva Convention or international law to know how ridiculous this slur is; it’s enough to ask yourself one simple question: How many black Africans in other countries spoke admiringly about South African apartheid as a model they’d like their own countries to follow? The answer, of course, is not many–and if Israel really practiced apartheid against Arabs, Middle Eastern Arabs would respond similarly to an equivalent question about Israel. Yet in fact, Arabs throughout the Middle East persistently cite Israeli democracy as the model they’d like their own countries to adopt.

Back in 2011, when the Arab Spring revolutions were at their height, Haaretz correspondent Anshel Pfeffer reported being stunned to hear from demonstrators in both Tunis and Cairo–neither of whom knew he represented an Israeli newspaper–that they wanted “a democracy like in Israel.” Just two weeks ago, the Middle East Media Research Institute published excerpts from articles in the Arab press over the last year that held up Israel as a model Arab states should learn from–in some cases, because of its economic, scientific, and democratic achievements, but in others, because of its democracy and even its morality.

Even the Palestinians themselves consistently voice admiration for Israeli democracy. From 1996-2002 (the last year the question was asked), Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki conducted annual polls of what governments Palestinians admired. “Every year Israel has been the top performer, at times receiving more than 80 percent approval,” the New York Times reported in 2003. “The American system has been the next best, followed by the French and then, distantly trailing, the Jordanian and Egyptian.” And that’s not because those years, in contrast to today, were a time of progress and optimism in the peace process: They were the years of Benjamin Netanyahu’s first government (1996-99), the collapse of the Camp David talks (2000) and the height of the second intifada (2000-03).

What’s truly astonishing about this admiration is that the Arab media is virulently anti-Israel, and routinely reports the wildest anti-Israel fabrications as fact. Hence most Arabs believe Israeli treatment of both Palestinians and Israeli Arabs to be much worse than the reality–and even so, they admire Israeli democracy.

As Pfeffer perceptively noted back in 2011, this is an ironic side effect of the Arab media’s obsession with Israel. Because Israel receives so much more coverage than other Western countries, Arabs end up seeing more of Israeli democracy in action than they do of other Western democracies: a president convicted of rape and a prime minister of corruption; hundreds of thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets (in the social justice protests of summer 2011) without suffering any violence from the police or military; a robustly free press in both Hebrew and Arabic; even the fact that Israeli hospitals offer first-class medical treatment to all, Jews and Arabs alike. And the Arabs like what they see.

So next time someone tells you Israel is an “apartheid state,” try asking them why Arabs throughout the region–unlike blacks in the days of South African apartheid–view the “apartheid state” as a model democracy to be emulated. You won’t convince the diehard anti-Israel crowd. But you might provide food for thought to the merely uninformed.



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