Oped: Bus Segregation Scandal Shows Netanyahu Coalition Can’t Have It Both Ways

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A nixed proposal to separate Israelis and Palestinians traveling between Israel and the West Bank still reflects poorly on Israel's democracy, writes a Bala Cynwyd native who works for J Street. 

For Israel’s democracy, it was night and day. The new Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan went to bed May 19 having launched a pilot program that would segregate Israeli and Palestinian bus travel from Israel to the West Bank. The next morning, in the middle of a parliament speech defending the program, Ben-Dahan was informed the decision had been shelved.

Swift condemnation from Israel’s president, opposition lawmakers and others abroad had apparently convinced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the proposal was “unacceptable.” But its architect, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, hasn’t given up.

Justifying it as a security measure to track Palestinian workers crossing into Israel, Ya’alon argued, "Every well-functioning country, and particularly one in the sensitive position that we are in, has the right to check those who enter or leave its borders.”

Without questioning Israel’s many legitimate security concerns, the defense minister’s comment is noteworthy because when bus passengers travel from Israel to the West Bank, they don’t cross a formal border. And if you ask most members of Ya’alon and Netanyahu’s Likud Party, they haven’t left Israel at all.

For decades, Israel’s right wing has gone to great lengths to erase the Green Line separating Israel from occupied territory. The line has been excised from government and school maps since the 1980s, and Jewish settlements across the West Bank receive more state funding than many projects within Israel. The message is clear: the West Bank is Israel and always will be.

But in terms of policy, the distinction could not be more obvious. As columnist Peter Beinart frequently argues, what’s missing over the Green Line is Israel’s vibrant democracy.

While the 1993 Oslo Accords officially charged the Palestinian Authority with governing the majority of Palestinians in the West Bank, it is still the Israeli military’s civil administration — led by Ya’alon — that has the final authority, and not Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

When West Bank Palestinians encounter abuse from Israeli soldiers that evokes memories of Ferguson or Baltimore, it's military, not civil law, that rules. It’s military law that undemocratically restricts freedom of speech and demonstration. And in certain areas, it’s military law that determines which streets or buses are for Palestinians and which are only for Jews.

Jewish settlers in the West Bank have the right to vote on these policies, but their Palestinian neighbors do not. That’s not what democracy looks like.

For most Americans and American Jews, this is difficult to swallow. After all, our close bond with Israel depends greatly on shared principles of democracy and justice.

Much like the proposed bus program, all of these policies are justified on security grounds — a serious matter for Israelis who live under the daily threat of terrorism.

Yet just as Israeli military officials have debunked the security argument for that particular policy, the same can be said for control of the West Bank.

Countless security experts and veterans have warned that this occupation — even more than terrorism or a nuclear Iran — risks Israel’s very survival because it undermines its greatest strength: its democracy. They have urged the prime minister to push aggressively for a two-state solution that achieves peaceful relations with Israel’s neighbors and cripples a growing movement to isolate Israel internationally. Partner or no partner, they say, Israel cannot afford to stop fighting for peace.

Much to Israel’s detriment, Netanyahu isn’t listening. And he’s formed a narrow, far-right coalition government that overwhelmingly rejects a two-state solution. “We are all against a Palestinian state, there is no question about it,” said Minister Silvan Shalom, Netanyahu’s new envoy for the peace process.

In this way, the right wing hopes to have it both ways — justifying undemocratic policies as a security necessity, while working to make occupation of the West Bank undeniably permanent.

This dangerous balancing act will likely continue, so long as this coalition calls the shots. But the cost will be high. As another Likudnik, former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon once warned, “It is impossible to have a Jewish, democratic state and at the same time to control all of Eretz Israel. If we insist on fulfilling the dream in its entirety, we are liable to lose it all.”

Though it will take considerably more than last week’s outcry to end the occupation and advance a two-state solution, the bus program’s suspension is a sign that such opposition can make a difference. For friends of “the Middle East’s only democracy,” it’s a cause worth fighting for.

Aaron Zucker, a native of Bala Cynwyd, is communications associate at J Street, the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans. He previously worked as an intern at the White House, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and the Council on Foreign Relations. 

 

 

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