With Eyes On Egypt, Anti-Democratic Bills Progress in the Knesset

This article was originally published at the Meretz USA blog

Given the momentous events taking place now in Egypt, it’s important for those of us who care about Israel to remember that the assault on Israeli democracy from within is continuing to move forward.

Luckily, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) is maintaining its vigilance. They sent a chilling update regarding three bills that are moving forward in the Knesset. I include their brief reports on each bill (in italics below) followed by own comments on each.

Parliamentary Committees of Inquiry:
The Knesset House Committee finalized the details of two separate but related parliamentary committees of inquiry, to be headed by MK Fania Kirshenbaum (Yisrael Beitenu) and MK Danny Danon (Likud). This decision was made despite the pointed legal opinion presented by Eyal Yinon, the Knesset Legal Adviser, who stated: “The parliamentary committees discussed here are the first-ever to deal with clearly ideological matters and from only one side of the political map (…) The establishment of such committees creates an atmosphere that harms basic democratic rights.”
The letters of appointment for the two committees will now be returned to the Knesset plenum for final approval. Knesset factions from the center and left of the political map have already announced that they will ban these committees.

I’ve written about this in the past. It is truly shocking that this measure can go forward despite the strong words of Knesset’s own Legal Adviser. It needs to be stressed that these committees target only one side of the NGO spectrum, which is the biggest problem with them. Both of these committees are charged with investigating different aspects of foreign funding and involvement with the activity of Israeli NGOs. Kirshenbaum’s is to investigate the foreign funding of left-wing NGOs. Danon’s is a bit more obscure, being tasked to investigate foreign “activities against the state” and the organized acquisition of state lands. Presumably, this last was prompted by a Palestinian businessman’s attempt to by the land of the East Jerusalem settlement of Nof Zion recently.

The issue of transparency is a red herring. With all the talk about transparency, none of the MKs trying to indict NGOs has been able to point to a single example where an organization has not complied with the existing transparency laws. This is nothing less than a witch-hunt and an assault on dissent, the very definition of an anti-democratic action. It’s worth noting that even Likud ministers Dan Meridor and Benny Begin agree with that assessment, and we can be sure they have no love for B’Tselem, Peace Now and similar groups.

Funding from Foreign State Entities Bill
The Knesset Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee has approved this bill for its second-third reading in the plenum. The vote in the plenum will probably be as early as next Monday. Following intensive lobby efforts by ACRI, the version that will most likely be submitted for vote is a somewhat toned-down version. For example, civil society organizations will be required to report on funding every three months (instead of annually, but not immediately as was the original version of the bill); and if public campaigns are funded by foreign state entities, it will be required to publish that in the campaign.

Even in its toned-down version, this legislation is clearly selective and politically motivated. ACRI fully supports transparency and we already publish all donations on our website, and so it is not clear how this bill intends to improve transparency. Furthermore, if the bill was truly out to increase transparency, it would include not only donations from foreign state entities, but also from foreign private donors, which are frequent funders of the activities of extremist organizations and groups in Israel.

This is the latest version of what was once called the Elkin Bill, named for the Likud MK that started these legislative efforts. Once again, this is selectively targeting the left despite the fact that no one has come up with any specific allegations, much less evidence, that any of these groups have not met the reporting requirements for their funding.

On the other hand, as Hagai El-Ad, ACRI’s executive director who wrote the update I’m quoting above, points out, settler groups are funded largely by private foundations and individual major donors from outside Israel, mostly the United States. There is also the matter of Israeli government funding of settlements, which was investigated in 2004-5 by Talia Sason, and uncovered a great deal of illicit and non-transparent government funding of settlements and “illegal outposts” (wildcat settlements that are illegal under Israeli law, not only international law under which all settlements are illegal). Sason also stated that despite their investigation, there was a great deal of funding they were unable to track.

One would think that, given this weighty report commissioned by none other than Ariel Sharon, this would merit investigation rather than entities that have always been transparent and clear…

Acceptance to Communities Bill
The Knesset Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee passed a slightly amended version of the Acceptance to Communities Bill, which will now be passed to the plenum for its second-third reading. The accepted amendments to the bill are applying it only to the Negev and Galilee regions and only to communities of up to 400 family units (instead of the original 500).ACRI views both amendments as insufficient, leaving private citizens with the authority to grant state-owned lands at their own discretion, thus promoting continued discrimination of Arabs, new immigrants, single parents, same-sex couples, people with disabilities, and others.

This bill is an attempt to legalize discrimination in Israel. This has often presented a problem for Jewish Israelis who wish to live exclusively with other Jews. The court is compelled to strike down discrimination in housing based on religion or race. Often, as is also true in the United States and other places, people who want to keep certain other people out can find ways to do it in individual cases, but when the discrimination is blatant, courts will rule against it. Israel is no exception.

So, the Knesset is trying to give courts the power to support discrimination, at least in small communities. The bill is clearly directed against Arabs, but Hagai is quite correct when he points out that it will inevitably be used to bar other classes of people.

All of these measures are big steps in the war against democracy being waged by the right wing in Israel. Those of us who care about Israel’s future need to keep our eye on this. It’s tough to do right now with all that’s happening in Egypt and the massive implications that has for Israel’s future, but if Israel is to have a future as a democratic state, we can’t take our eyes of these proceedings even for a moment.

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