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Israel: The Knesset vs. Democracy

Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images
Sudanese immigrant Mohammed Yussef works at the construction site of a border fence along Israel’s border with Egypt near the Red Sea resort town of Eilat, February 15, 2012

This is the seventh in an NYRblog series about the fate of democracy in different parts of the world.

This should be a year in which Israeli democracy is much on display. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been reconfirmed as head of the right-leaning Likud Party, seems to be pushing for early national elections; while candidates to lead the centrist Kadima Party, the main opposition party, are now campaigning for their March 27 primary. But even as the country prepares for its most important democratic exercise, a far-reaching series of laws now pending or already passed by the Knesset suggests Israel is moving in an alarmingly anti-democratic direction.

Consider the following: In January, the Knesset passed an amendment to a fifty-year-old law against “infiltrators”—persons crossing into Israel illegally. The original law targeted citizens and residents of “enemy states”—in other words, armed and unarmed Palestinian refugees slipping across the newly established border. The amendment removes the focus on “enemy state,” effectively criminalizing anyone seeking asylum in Israel—including thousands of refugees who have fled the genocide in Darfur and now face a minimum of three years of detention. The law also has no age bar, meaning that young children and the elderly can also be placed in detention. Yet despite protests from civil society activists and well-known public figures, who described the law as unbefitting a state founded by refugees, only eight of the Knesset’s 120 members voted against the amendment.

Other recently passed legislation includes a law that prescribes the withdrawal of government funding to any organization or institution marking Israel’s Independence Day as an occasion for mourning; a law allowing communities in the Negev and Galilee regions that are smaller than 400 households to refuse to accept new residents on the basis of race, faith, and other collective identifications; a law that allows any settler who claims economic injury (even if without proof) from a call to boycott settlement produce to sue the organizers of the boycott for damages; and a law binding migrant workers’ visas to their initial employers—effectively rendering them unable to quit a job for fear of being instantly deported. Yet another recent law allows the revocation of citizenship from any person convicted of terrorism or espionage. (The espionage charge was most recently applied to IDF whistle blower Anat Kamm, who passed classified information on what she believed were war crimes not to a foreign agent, but to an Israeli journalist, and now is serving a four and a half year prison sentence; under the new law she could have also lost her citizenship.)

Among pending proposals is a bill, already making its way through the Knesset, that would impose a 45 percent income tax on organizations receiving donations from “foreign state entities” but not state sponsorship. This category includes nearly all Israeli civil and human rights organizations, such as Association for Civil Rights Israel, B’tselem, and Physicians for Human Rights, and the proposed tax would effectively cripple their activities. Another bill, already past first reading, is aimed to increase the penalty for defamation from around $12,000 to $80,000, likely to result in a significant chilling effect on Israel’s independent press, perhaps most especially on the growing Israeli blogosphere.

“Israel has always been a highly nationalist society, but there’s also always been the aspiration or the pretense to have this nationalism go hand in hand with some key liberal values, especially freedom of speech” Michael Sfard, a leading Israeli human rights lawyer, told me. “As someone who deals with freedom of speech, I can tell you that many Western countries could be proud of the way it has been enshrined here in Israel. And these values are currently being taken apart.”

While many hope that some of the more egregious bills will be overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court, there are meanwhile several legislative projects that openly aim to give parliament greater control over the judiciary and ensure the appointment of more conservative judges. These proposals include a bill to institute a vetting process for judges by the Justice Committee of the Knesset, which is controlled by the right-leaning ruling coalition; a bill ensuring that one of the two delegates from the Israeli Bar to the Judicial Appointments Committee—a committee composed of representatives of the Bar, the Supreme Court, the government, and the opposition—will be the chair of the Bar, significantly raising the chances of two pro-government delegates and destroying the balance between coalition and opposition in the committee; and an amendment that would severely limit the circumstances under which NGOs can petition the Supreme Court in the first place.

What could be driving this sustained assault on such fundamental democratic principles as the right to asylum, the right to free association, the right to freedom of speech, and the right to an independent judiciary?

For one thing, in a country with a long tradition of shifting political alliances and unstable governments, Netanyahu’s far-right coalition has proven remarkably durable. The current parliament is now completely dominated by Likud, its spin-offs and traditional allies: aside from Likud itself, which holds 27 of the parliament’s 120 seats, the coalition includes the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu (15 seats), led by former Likudnik Avigdor Lieberman; the Sephardi-orthodox Shas (11 seats) and United Torah Judaism (5 seats), which have veered sharply to the right to toe the government line and secure maximum welfare support for their constituents; Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home, 3 seats), an extreme-right spin-off the old National Religious Party. Meanwhile, Kadima (28 seats), the main opposition party, is itself a badly divided Likud offshoot that often seems not much to the left of the ruling coalition.

This has given coalition members unusual power to push through legislation with little opposition. Moreover, much of the initiative has fallen to younger and more radical members of parliament, who, coming of age during the collapse of the peace process and amid violent conflicts in Gaza, Lebanon, and the West Bank, seek to immunize the Israeli state against any perceived threats to both its actual security and to its Jewish character. While much of the Western press has focused on far-right coalition parties easily identifiable with some exotic “other”—like the “Russian” Yisrael Beitenu or some of the more theocratic settler Knesset Members (MKs)—some of the most controversial legislation has been initiated by young parliamentarians from the core of the ruling Likud party, including Danny Danon (40), who promoted the anti-boycott legislation, Tzipi Hotoveli (33), who supports women’s rights but describes herself as a “religious right-winger,” Ofir Akounis (38), the deputy speaker of the Knesset, who sponsored the legislation limiting NGO funding, and Yariv Levin (42), who proposed the anti-boycott legislation and new restrictions on sale of land to foreigners.

It is worth noting that many of these young MKs are to the right of Benjamin Netanyahu himself (indeed Danon has opposed him within the party in the past), and while the Prime Minister has endorsed many of their proposals, he has not articulated a larger vision for them much beyond doing what is necessary to hold together the coalition and preserve his own grip on power. He has shot down some of the laws that were too blatantly authoritarian, such as the various proposals for a loyalty oath and some of the original anti-NGO legislation. But being committed first and foremost to pursuing a national security strategy aimed at securing regional hegemony and expanding Israeli control over the occupied territories, Netanyahu has been content to let his younger party colleagues have large sway over domestic policy, so long as they further those objectives and don’t threaten his coalition. Above all, then, it has been the Knesset itself that has become the primary engine of Israel’s turn away from democratic values.

The parliament’s rightward swing is not happening in a vacuum. Ever more fraught concerns about Iran and the continuing threat of rocket attacks from Gaza has allowed the government to encourage the perception that Israel’s national security is under greater threat than at any time since the Six Day War. At the same time, the politicization of Israeli Arabs and a relentlessly exaggerated growth in the number of African refugees and migrant workers have seemed to threaten the Jewish state from within. (In fact, the migrant population remains small; the Israeli Interior Ministry estimates that the total number of legal and illegal migrant workers and asylum seekers, taken together, amounts only to some 2 percent of the population.)

For its part, the secular center-left—above all the once-powerful Labor party—has lost much credibility with the crumbling of the peace process and its failure to present other significant achievements, in any major area of policy, over the past 12 years. And while Israel remains a democracy for its citizens, Arab as well as Jewish, it also effectively controls millions of Palestinians who have almost no recourse with the Israeli authorities that run their lives. Some say the undemocratic system established for these Palestinians is now seeping back across the Green Line.

The number one reason why the Right is doing this is because it can—it’s in control,” says Hassan Jabareen, perhaps Israel’s best-known constitutional lawyer and director of the Adalah, the legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel. “Why is it so stable? In my view, it has to do with the failure of the negotiations with the PLO. The very peace process that was meant to end the occupation has devolved into living proof that you cannot end the occupation, and as part of the Right’s defiance of the very institution of the Green Line on which partition was supposed to have been based, they are now copying government methods we know from the occupation into Israel itself. The first ones to suffer are, of course, Palestinian citizens of Israel and those the Right perceive as the Palestinians’ allies—the left-wingers, the media, and the human rights NGOs.”

Equally important may be the decline of Israel’s independent press. In 2010, Yisrael Hayom, a pro-Netanyahu free sheet owned by Newt Gingrich’s donor Sheldon Adelson, surpassed the still-independent Yedioth Arondot to become the most read paper in Israel. Meanwhile, the third largest daily, Maariv, which controls over 13 percent of the market, has been acquired by a pro-Netanyahu oligarch and is currently being edited by the prime minister’s former spokesman, Nir Hefetz. The Israel Broadcasting Authority is now managed by another former spokesman of Netanyahu’s, Dr. Amit Gilat. And a far more prominent commercial channel, Channel 10, after it aired a damaging expose on Netanyahu’s travel expenses, found the government reluctant to allow it to spread its debts into installments, which meant, effectively, the channel would go bankrupt and shut down.

(A senior Channel 10 executive told Haaretz—one of the few publications that has continued to criticize the government—that he was given to understand by persons in the prime minister’s inner circle that if the author of the expose, prominent reporter Raviv Druker, was fired, the channel would be “saved.” The prime minister’s office angrily denied the claim; Druker kept his job; and a last-minute intervention from the Broadcasting Authority extended its license until 2013, keeping it on air but in enough financial jeopardy to limit its coverage of the government’s activities in an election year.)

Meanwhile, a series of incidents involving racist and misogynist remarks by public officials and community leaders suggests that civil society has been eroded in other ways as well. The practice of segregating women from men in everyday life, for example, until not long ago confined to the most extreme ultra-Orthodox sects, has spread not only to buses but to municipal gatherings, academic conferences, and even scientific award ceremonies, simply by de-facto actions taken by leaders of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. When misogynist attitudes have led to public incidents, such as an attack in December by several ultra-Orthodox young men on an Orthodox eight-year-old girl they deemed immodestly dressed, it has drawn outrage among some Israeli commentators and several protests. But the government has taken no steps to combat them.

AP Photo/Dan Balilty
Israelis hold up signs reading in Hebrew: “Gender segregation is my red line, stop gender segregation now” as they protest in the central Israeli town of Beit Shemesh, December 27, 2011

Against this background comes one of the Court’s most controversial recent rulings. According to a recent amendment to the Citizenship Law, Palestinians from the occupied territories who have married Israeli citizens are prohibited from living in Israel; and since an ongoing military order bars Israeli citizens from living in Palestinian cities, the amendment would in practice invalidate all such marriages. It also contains a retroactive clause, which means families already married and living in Israel will be torn apart. By a single vote majority, however, the court upheld the bill, with one of the justices suggesting that while the court recognized the right to family, it failed to see why it needed to be realized in Israel. Incoming Supreme Court President Asher Grunis wrote in his decision that “human rights should not be a recipe for national suicide.”

One of the paradoxes about the recent legislation is that it has coincided with one of the largest social justice protests in Israeli history. Israelis today face greater social and economic inequality than ever before, and last summer hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest housing prices and declining opportunities for the middle class. Yet the big parties differ little on economic policies, rendering the issue, at least to date, largely irrelevant in electoral politics, and for now the protests have failed to produce an organized political movement. One recent poll, published by Geocartography Knowledge Group, actually predicted that Likud will extend its dominance in the next election, gaining an additional 11 seats to a total of 39 out of 120. Commentators have noted that the Geocartography group’s chair, Prof. Avi Degani, is a Likud pollster, but other polls have predicted that Likud at minimum will maintain its current strength while its main opposition rival, Kadima could lose as many as half its current 29 seats.

Proponents of the anti-democratic laws argue that what they’re really doing is reinforcing Jewish democracy against external threats. They portray civil society NGOs as agents of foreign influence, the Supreme Court as an unelected clique that grossly obstructs the democratic process, and news organizations that question government policies as left wing and unpatriotic. These allegations find a ready audience in an increasingly nationalist electorate; even those skeptical of some of the more radical proposals have shown little readiness to engage in organized opposition.

Stav Shaffir, a key organizer of the colossal protests last summer, insists the elections are not the point and that a much greater change needs to take place than a reshuffle of parliamentary seats. “We’re running a marathon,” she says. “We’re not sure where the finish line is, but it’s certainly not the general elections. The general elections are just one post among many.” She and other activists have spent the last few months trying to build up a new movement. But even as they do so, Israel’s dual identity as a democracy for its citizens and a Jewish state is undergoing a momentous change, with the current coalition increasingly willing to sacrifice the former to preserve the latter.

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