Netanyahu’s Coalition of the Unwilling

After Benjamin Netanyahu’s surprising victory in Israel’s national elections in March, he took until the last possible Bennettminute to complete the process of forming the government for his fourth term as Israel’s prime minister. For all the time he invested, despite making it just under the wire, Netanyahu ended up with a fragile, ultra-right-wing coalition and more work ahead of him to bring in at least one more party.

The government Netanyahu presented to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin was a bare majority of 61 seats out of the 120-seat Knesset. There are no fig leafs in this coalition, no Tzipi Livni or Ehud Barak for Netanyahu to send to talk fruitlessly with the Palestinians. One might think this would make the coalition more stable, since it consists entirely of the right wing. In this, one would be wrong. Read more at LobeLog.

New Knesset Bill Magnifies the Attack on Democracy in Israel

Here in the United States, we have become only too familiar with the paranoid rantings of those who warn of “creeping sharia.” Sharia, of course, is the body of religious Muslim law. Neo-conservatives and their fellow travelers have had a good deal of impact scaring Americans about this non-existent threat.

Thankfully, numerous analysts and reporters, such as Matt Duss at Think Progress, have done outstanding work exposing this fear-mongering propaganda for what it is.

From Meretz USA's web site

Maybe, though, it’s time we American Jews, and our Israeli counterparts, woke up to the real threat in Israel of “creeping halakha.”

The Knesset is considering a bill now that would change Israel’s Basic Law defining Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state,” to promote Israel’s “Jewish character” as superior to its democratic nature.

In other words, as Likud MK Ze’ev Elkin, a leading figure in the anti-democracy movement in Israel, explains, the new law would frame “the state as the Jewish nation state in (court) ruling(s) in situations in which the Jewish character of the state clashes with its democratic character.”

Can we be any more blatantly anti-democratic than that? Actually, yes.

Because the bill contains another provision, one which would provide that “If the court sees a legal question requiring a ruling, and finds no solution in legislation, custom or clear analogy, it will rule in light of the principles of freedom, justice, integrity and peace in Jewish heritage.” In other words, as Ha’aretz puts it, the “…clause states that Jewish law will be a source of inspiration to the legislature and the courts.”

It may well be that this clause will not be part of the law that will be passed. It does have the whiff of a clause that was put in to stir up controversy so it can be removed and the rest of the legislation will be less targeted.

But even if that is the case, and one hopes that it is, the inclusion of this clause is a warning to us all of the increasing religious influence in the Knesset. This is a cause for grave concern for a number of reasons.

As Jews, we must all be concerned that the world’s only Jewish state would represent not a national state, but a religious one. We, better than any other people, know the dangers of religious states. Contrary to the dissembling on the right, most progressive Jews are very concerned about human rights abuses in theocratic countries, including, though not limited to, Muslim countries (we just don’t like it when those concerns are cynically used to shield Israel, or other countries, from legitimate criticism of their own human rights violations). Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Is Lieberman the New Israeli Mainstream?

(Note: This was cross-posted at Meretz USA’s blog.)

In an interview given to Newsweek, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman made the following, quite chilling statement: “I am the mainstream. When I started with my vision, I was really a small minority. Today we’re the third [largest] party in Israel.”

Lieberman is certainly no stranger to bluster, so it’s easy to dismiss this as more of Yvet’s (as he is called) hubris. But is that really the case? There’s a good deal of evidence to suggest that Lieberman is absolutely right.

Avigdor Lieberman

Each piece of that evidence is another massive blow to the teetering ship that is Israeli democracy. The latest was a proposal introduced this past week by Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beiteinu, to set up a Knesset committee to investigate the funding sources of progressive, and only left-wing, NGOs.

Israeli journalist and blogger Yossi Gurvitz likened the event to the burning of the Reichstag, implying that this was the point where Israel slipped from democracy to fascism. Gurvitz may be overstating the case (I’d certainly say he is), but he is not exaggerating how anti-democratic this action and this Knesset are. Nor can it be reasonably denied that, whether Gurvitz is right or not today, if Israel continues on its present course, there is no doubt he will be someday and probably not in all that distant a future. Continue reading

Knesset Attempt To Cripple Israeli Civil Society

In the wake of the public row over the attack on the New Israel Fund, many supporters of Israeli civil society are stopping to catch their breath. The support NIF received was quite impressive and speaks very well about the deep and abiding care that Jews and our friends the world over have for the best ideals among Israelis as expressed by a stunning array of groups that seek to improve conditions both in Israel and over the Green line.

But while people recover from that episode, a far more dangerous threat has emerged, this time not coming from an ultra-nationalist private group like Im Tirtzu but from the Knesset itself.

Thousands marched last December in Tel Aviv in Israel's first human rights march

A bill that has passed its preliminary first reading in the Knesset, with the Orwellian name “Bill for the Duty of Disclosure for Someone Supported by a Foreign Political Entity,”purports to close “loopholes” regarding transparency of funding for Israeli non-profit entities.

In practice, the bill selectively targets a wide array of progressive groups and would seriously impact their ability to fund their activities or even to engage in them. Any state programs funded by “foreign political entities” would not be included in the bill’s restrictions; nor would right-wing groups which are universally funded by private money.

Before I explain how this would come about, we should first understand some background about non-profit organizations in Israel. The field there is very different than what most of us are used to.

In the United States, there exists a broad network of foundations and philanthropies, encouraged through tax examptions by the government, to fund various social causes of all sorts. In Europe, government funds are dispersed through various agencies that act much like foundations in the States.

But Israel has none of this; not surprising as Israel was born with the help of support from outside funding sources from the earliest days of the Yishuv through the creation of the state and up to the present day. Thus, Israeli organizations that pursue advocacy, social services and other forms of activism depend on funding from overseas. The government itself gets help from other countries to pursue various projects, as does Israel’s education sector, Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and a wide variety of Jewish religious and cultural projects throughout the country. Continue reading

Stand Up For Democracy, Civil and Human Rights In Israel

How pernicious is the campaign against the New Israel Fund (NIF)?

The group that started this, Im Tirtzu, bills itself as a centrist group, although its founder and lead spokesperson, Ronen Shoval, was also a leading activist against the Gaza withdrawal and ran for the Knesset on the ticket of the far-right Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home) party. As the campaign against NIF started to flag, such right-wing all-stars who never let facts get in the way of their ideological programs as Gerald Steinberg and David Bedein jumped into the media pool to try to prop it up.

Im Tirtzu demonstrating at Na'alin, where regular protests against the separation barrier often leave Palestinians injured

But indeed it would be a mistake to see this as a hardcore right-wing attack. The Im Tirtzu campaign is certainly hateful enough, but the real threat came up when a drive in the Knesset began to set up a subcommittee to investigate the NIF. This drive, which failed as well, was not led by a fanatical right-winger, but by Yisrael Hasson and Otniel Schneller of the “centrist” Kadima party (that Kadima can be called the Israeli center realistically says much about the rightward drift in the past decade of Israeli politics, but thatg is a separate matter).

It is also worth noting that there was a lot of opposition to this idea, and it came not only from the left but also from Kadima (by MK Nachman Shai, for example) and from Likud (including such leading figures as Dan Meridor, Benny Begin and Michael Eitan).

The witch-hunters who have set their sights on NIF are not giving up, and Im Tirtzu and their supporters in the media (notably Ben Caspit of Ma’ariv, Israel’s second-leading daily newspaper) are still working to launch governmental probes of NIF and to revive Knesset legislation to prevent Israeli NGOs from receiving foreign funding (no similar action against settlements and settler organizations receiving foreign support is in the offing). Continue reading

AN ELECTION THAT OFFERS LITTLE CHOICE

In my capacity as the Director of B’Tselem’s US Office, I’ve been asked frequently of late about the Israeli elections that are winding down as I write this. In general, B’Tselem stays away from matters of politics. Our credibility is dependent on our being focused on human rights, no matter what the shape of the Israeli, or any other, government may be.

An Israeli ballot box

An Israeli ballot box

But this time, I could answer honestly: It really doesn’t matter. Historically, Israel’s observance of international legal standards regarding the Palestinians, while having its peaks and valleys, has moved independently of the party or Prime Minister in power. And in this case, none of the candidates has offered any hint that they are different from the others.

The exception is not one of the contenders for Prime Minister, and that is Avigdor Lieberman. And all that signifies is how much of a threat Israeli democracy is really facing.

Settlement expansion, lack of law enforcement on the West Bank, ongoing house demolitions, the effects of the Separation Barrier, the massive proliferation of roadblocks…and many other issues, all of them get the silent treatment from all of the major candidates. Continue reading