THESE past months have been politically momentous in Israel. Never has the country faced a more dangerous domestic crisis since its founding 75 years ago.

With hundreds of thousands of Israelis having taken to the streets to protest against the proposed overhaul of the judicial system by the coalition government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the people’s cause was framed in terms of a battle for Israel’s soul.

The general consensus was that the country’s democracy was under attack, and can I say from the outset that I don’t disagree with such an assessment.

That said, there is much more to recent events than meets the eye or how it’s largely been reported.

To begin with, the crisis over Israel’s democracy has been a long time coming with plenty of warning signs along the way. This face-off too has as much to do with pro-and anti-Netanyahu camps in Israeli society as it has to do with a crisis of democracy itself.

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But, having suddenly come to a head, it has forced Israelis to ask themselves what it means to stand on the brink of losing civil liberties and guaranteed rights.

The irony here is obvious, not least if you are a Palestinian most of whom have never known or experienced those very rights that Israelis took to the streets to protect and preserve. To their credit, some Israelis these past weeks were willing to recognise the call that “a nation that occupies another will never be free”.

But these people are the exception and far from the norm in a state where the attitude towards Palestinian democracy is quite something else to what passes for democracy in Israel. It was Israel’s far-right finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, speaking in France last Sunday, who summed up the prevailing attitude towards Palestinians among many within Israel’s ultranationalist community.

“There’s no such thing as Palestinians because there’s no such thing as a Palestinian people,” Smotrich insisted, adding that “this truth should be heard at the Elysee Palace and the White House.”

In the same speech, Smotrich went on to say that “the argument that there is no Palestinian people should also be heard among Arabs in Israel and among ‘confused Jews’”, apparently referring to leftist voters according to the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz.

As well as being the current minister of finance, Smotrich is a settler in the West Bank, and the first civilian politician – as opposed to a military official – to have been put in charge of Israel’s illegal rule over the occupied Palestinian territories.

As I said it would be a mistake to think that such views are the preserve of a racist, bigoted minority, for unpalatable as they are, an ever-growing chorus of right-wingers within Israel concur with Smotrich’s take.

What’s more such views are effectively consistent with certain Israeli laws and policies, such as the 2018 Basic Law: Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People that recognises that “the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People”.

Or to put this another way, it excludes the right of equality for all the country’s citizens.

Which takes me back to this question of democracy when viewed through a Palestinian prism.

As the Palestinian journalist Muhammad Shehada wrote in Newsweek magazine in the wake of events in Israel, there is a “painful juxtaposition in the tension between what Israelis were willing to risk for their own rights, and how little they seem to care about ours”.

The National: Palestinians clash with Israeli forces in the West Bank city of Nablus (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

For let’s not forget that while the world’s media primarily focuses on the plight of and struggle for Israeli democracy, millions of Palestinians in the West Bank (above) live under Israel’s effective control but cannot participate in the political process.

Those living in East Jerusalem meanwhile are “residents” rather than citizens and therefore excluded from casting ballots in national elections. Even those Palestinian citizens of Israel who can take part in elections, still live under discriminatory laws.

It was the American author Peter Beinart writing in The New York Times who rightly pointed out recently that those Israelis on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were there not so much to preserve democracy per se.

Instead, they were there “to preserve the political system that existed before Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition took power, which was not, for Palestinians, a genuine liberal democracy in the first place”.

As Beinart summed it up, “it’s a movement to save liberal democracy for Jews”.

That said there are signs at last that Israelis seem to be waking up to the uncomfortable fact that democracy and inequality cannot co-exist together. For 75 years now Israel has kept a façade of democracy, one corroded and undermined by its continued occupation of the Palestinian territories and subjugation of the people there.

I’ve no doubt that many Israelis have always realised this but would prefer not to face the fact.

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I’ve no doubt too that events of the past few weeks have made some Israelis think again, bringing perhaps a realisation in their own minds that for most Palestinians under Israeli control in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel is not a democracy. How can it be when Palestinians in the Occupied Territories can’t vote for the government that dominates their lives?

If something positive is to come from recent events it might be a renewed awareness of the need to give both peoples the rights, dignity and freedoms to which they are entitled.

For the moment though, Israel’s “crisis of democracy” is far from over with Netanyahu simply buying time after announcing he would be delaying the judicial overhaul until the next parliamentary session.

This is now an issue too big to be dismissed easily and Netanyahu, entrenched as his views are, surely knows that.

I salute Israel’s fight for democracy, but until it stops ignoring Palestinian claims to those same rights its own internal divisions will continue to fester.

That is the inescapable crux of the matter here.