Israel, a unique nation in the MidEast

By Vernon Bogdanor, January 6, 2011
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Moshe Katzav was Israel's eighth president. Elected in 2000, he was forced to resign before the end of his term to meet accusations of rape and sexual harassment.

Last month he was found guilty of rape. He now proposes to appeal to Israel's Supreme Court. But, if his appeal fails, he faces a long prison sentence.

The mark of a constitutional democracy is that no one is above the law. In the US, Richard Nixon, when accused of criminal offences, said that if a president does something, it cannot be illegal. The Watergate prosecutors proved him wrong and he was forced to resign the presidency in 1973 to avoid impeachment. In Britain, Lord Denning, Master of the Rolls, once reminded a minister - be you ever so high, the law is above you.

England is commonly regarded as the mother of parliaments. But Israel can claim to be the mother of constitutionalism. In the Hebrew Bible, the kings cannot act according to their own will, but are subject to the law.

The chair of the judges in the Katzav case was George Karra, a Christian Arab. Israel is the only country in the Middle East where a former head of state could be convicted in a court chaired by a member of a national minority. In other Middle Eastern countries and in the PA, it is not only Jews who are at risk but, as recent events in Egypt have shown, Christians too.

Israel, however, should not be compared with authoritarian states, but with long-established democracies such as Britain, the United States and the Scandinavian countries. Here the record is not so good. In the 1990s, admittedly, the Rabin government made considerable progress in removing discrimination against Israel's Arab citizens. This is now at risk. A recent survey of the Israel Democracy Institute shows that only 51 per cent of Israelis support equality of rights between Jews and Arabs. The greater the level of religious observance, the less the support for equality. A recent letter, signed by a number of municipal rabbis, but condemned by President Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu, claimed that selling or renting an apartment to a non-Jew was a desecration of the Torah.

Israelis are entitled to feel pride in the outcome of the Katzav case, but not self-righteousness, an emotion which has all too often distorted Israeli life in recent years. Israel still has far to go before she can claim to have fulfilled the vision of her founding fathers. For men such as Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, Zionism called for Jewish self-criticism, not congratulation. Israel could do with more of that self-critical spirit today.

Vernon Bogdanor is Research Professor at King's College London

Last updated: 3:00pm, January 6 2011