Israeli Ambassador Fails Analogy Test

Michael Oren, Israel's Ambassador to the United States, has come up with an analogy that, he hopes, will help Americans understand why Palestinians in the West Bank don't have basic political rights, such as voting for or against the government that ultimately controls their fate. In a long Foreign Policy piece that addresses various critics of Israel, Oren deploys his analogy against Peter Beinart, who in his book The Crisis of Zionism suggests we start calling the West Bank "non-democratic Israel." Oren writes:

The existence of partially democratic enclaves within a democratic system does not necessarily discredit it. Residents of Washington, D.C., are taxed without representation, while those in the U.S. territories -- Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands -- cannot vote in presidential elections. Anomalies exist in every democracy, and Israel's is not voided by the situation in the West Bank.

It's true that within its 1967 borders Israel is a democracy, and that this democracy isn't "voided" by the situation in the West Bank. But I don't think Beinart ever said it was--in fact, Beinart refers to the Israel within those borders as "democratic Israel." The argument, rather, is about how we should think of the West Bank. Oren wants us to think of it as meaningfully analogous to the District of Columbia and to US territories such as Puerto Rico. I have some problems with that. For example:

Residents of Puerto Rico can and do hold referenda on whether they want to secede and become a sovereign state, fully in control of all their territory. Palestinians have no such option.

As for DC: As a former DC resident, I'm no fan of the prevailing arrangement there, but the fact is that a DC resident who wants congressional representation can just move a couple of miles, to Virginia or Maryland. West Bank Palestinians, in contrast, aren't allowed to move to Israel proper, where they would in theory be allowed to vote.

Also: In Washington DC, no resident, regardless of ethnicity, gets congressional representation. In the West Bank, the Jewish residents get full political rights, but residents who live 25 yards away but are Muslim or Christian don't. The last time there was much of an analogy between this and the city of Washington was back when white male residents of Washington could vote but black male residents couldn't. That was in 1800.

If Oren wants to argue that, regrettably, giving Palestinians basic rights would imperil Israel's security, or its identity as a Jewish state, or anything else, that's an argument I'm willing to listen to. But for him to act as if West Bank Palestinians aren't denied basic rights, and to suggest that their status is even remotely comparable to the status of any ethnic or national group under American control, is a bit much.

It could be, of course, that as an American I'm being too sensitive to this comparison. In any event, I'll close with a reaction to Oren's analogy from an Israeli, Noam Sheizaf, writing in Israel's 972 Magazine:

I am not very fond of comparing countries to one another, let alone Israel and the United States - which are different in almost every way, from political culture to legal system to civil society tradition - but this is the analogy that lies at the heart of Ambassador's Oren's text, which intends to portray Israel as a tiny America, a bastion of civil rights in a hostile and strange environment.

So, following the ambassador's suggestion, let's imagine the Palestinians as the equivalent of American citizens living in Washington DC or in U.S. territories. But let's take this analogy all the way: Imagine that those citizens are under military control, where no warrant is needed to invade their houses at night and arrest them. Let's imagine that 7 percent of all prisoners are currently held without trial for months and years. That everyone, including children, are tried by military tribunals. That complaints of torture - there have been more than 700 of these in the previous decade - could be sealed at the order of an internal security officer.

Let's imagine those citizens surrounded by walls and fences and a system of dozens of roadblocks, some of them permanent with many appearing and disappearing every day, between the various suburbs and towns, so a route that could take 10 minute to drive regularly turns into a journey of hours. Let's imagine them unable to relocate or travel abroad without a special permit, notoriously hard to obtain, from the military authorities.

And on top of this, they can't vote.

And now let's imagine this unique situation applied to a third of the population under the United State's control - say 100 million - for two-thirds of the country's history, meaning over 150 years. This would be the proper analogy, if we were to follow Ambassador Oren's logic. It doesn't sound very democratic.

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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