DEMOCRACY is alive and well in Israel, a fact worth celebrating as the modern Jewish state marks the beginning of the new year on its calendar. Genuine, full and honest democracy is what sets Israel apart from every other state in the region, its enemies certainly, and some of its friends, too.
It is a fundamental reason for the support that Israel enjoys from this country and others, and for the fact that an American running for president could get into trouble for even suggesting "evenhandedness" in this country's treatment of Israel vs. its enemies and reluctant peace partners.
The democratic tradition was manifest last week in an event that startled some and enraged others. Twenty-seven active-duty duty and reserve officers of the Israeli air force, the most elite of its military services, sent a petition to the head of the air force saying they would refuse to participate in missions to bomb civilian centers, especially the assassination missions which Israel has used as a primary means of retaliation for suicide bombers dispatched by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian terror groups.
Some of the signatories told the Israeli media their decision to act was developed in July after an Israeli fighter bomber struck the home of a Hamas leader in Gaza and killed civilians, including nine Palestinian children. That incident shocked even Israelis who believe that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is right in his assassination campaign. Moreover, it was followed by even more suicide attacks against Israelis.
"We for whom the Israeli Defense Forces and the Israeli Air Force are an inseparable part, refuse to continue to hurt innocent civilians," states the petition to Gen. Dan Halutz, air force commander. "These acts are a direct result of the ongoing occupation that corrupts all of Israeli society."
The signatories were mostly older officers, including reserve Brig. Gen. Yiftach Spector, a former ace fighter pilot who served in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and flew in the 1981 Israeli mission that successfully destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak. He is a hero.
Halutz reportedly said that only nine of the signatories were on active duty and that they would either repudiate their statements or be discharged.
"We are in a vicious war against terrorism," he told the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. " ... We are the most moral army I know. I am ready to deal with anyone who comes to me and shows me one operation which was not moral or legal."
Others reacted furiously.
Sharon accused the fliers of undermining the government, and, in a radio interview, he alluded to forces that had previously tried to overthrow the government - apparently, and curiously referring to the 1982 resignation of the head of Israel's military training college to protest the Israeli army's conduct in Lebanon during massacres at Palestinian refugee camps there, events that led to then-Defense Minister Sharon leaving the government in disgrace.
Former President Ezer Weizman, a former air force commander and war hero, said the officers' petition was a "disgrace."
But there was no secret about it, and none of the petitioners is going to be put before a firing squad.
Neither is there any secret about the fact that about 550 other active-duty and reserve Israeli army soldiers - acting under the banner "Courage to Refuse" - have refused to serve in the West Bank and Gaza.
"We shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people," their declaration states. For the most part, these refuseniks are held in the brig for the duration of their service duty.
Compare that to what Saddam Hussein would have done to Iraqi soldiers who might have dared to refuse orders to brutalize the Kurds in the north of Iraq and the Shiites of the south. What would the regime of Bashar Assad do to Syrian soldiers who rejected duty on grounds of conscience? What would the Iranians do to such objectors?
Or what about our friends? What would Egypt do to soldiers or police who refused punish anti-government forces? The Egyptians have thrown people in jail for suggesting their elections are rigged, which they are. What would our friends the Saudis do to soldiers or policemen of conscience who publicly rejected Wahhabite edicts? Chop, chop!
(Come to think of it, how would Rumsfeld of Mesopotamia, or Ashcroft of Guantanamo, react to hundreds of U.S. reservists not only refusing to serve in Iraq, but publishing a declaration with language like that of Israel's "Courage to Refuse," complaining about "commands and directives that had nothing to do with the security of our country"?)
Israel is different from all of its neighbors. It has elections. It has a free press. And people are free to say what they please.
This sets apart the modern Jewish state. These are the very ideals that led to this latest protest. The air force officers and the soldiers of "Courage to Refuse" see those principles tarnished by military actions against the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
But the commitment to democracy and the support for Israel that it attracts also are why Israel's behavior is examined and criticized in ways that sometimes infuriate its leadership and the country's most fervent supporters here and elsewhere abroad.
Democracy is a burden. The leaders of the great modern democracies of the world know that. But it's worth it.