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Controversy in the Knesset: Israeli legislation threatens peace

Israel's government gained support for new legislation that would leave the country more fragmented and less pluralistic

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

The Israeli Knesset is no stranger to controversy, feisty debates and at times ill-tempered behaviour by its members, but rarely are domestic frictions laid bare so shamelessly in front of a foreign dignitary. The British Prime Minister David Cameron, who endures some tough times himself in the House of Commons, witnessed during his last week’s visit to the Knesset some of the aftershocks of a deeply polarising vote on legislation that took place a day before his visit. In the wake of the decision by the opposition to stay absent from the vote, the government secured a big majority in support of three pieces of legislation, seemingly unrelated to one another, yet all with massive impact on the future character of the country and its people. The legislation would leave Israel more fragmented, less pluralistic and the prospect of making peace with her neighbours ostensibly a near impossible task.

The package legislation included laws which ended the exemption of ultra-orthodox Israelis from military conscription; a constitutional-like law which requires the Israeli government to approve by referendum any withdrawal from Jerusalem or the Golan Heights; and raising the threshold for a party to enter the Knesset. The three laws were brought to the Knesset as a package to prolong the life of the current coalition, as each of them appeases different parts of the coalition. To an extent, each of the new laws has its own logic and can be spun as an attempt to bring about a more democratic and equal society. However, upon close examination, this mishmash of legislation is not only politically short-sighted, but a long term social and political time-bomb.

Scratch the surface

Ratifying any future territorial concessions of occupied land, which Israel annexed in a referendum, as was demanded by the ultra-right wing party Habayit HaYeudi (The Jewish Home), on the face of it sounds very democratic. Hence if the Israeli legislature is so concerned with leaving the last say for the populace and not the politicians, why limit the referendum to Israeli citizens, instead of including those who actually live in these territories? After all, is it not their future which is at stake? Doesn’t the opinion of the Palestinians, who live in East Jerusalem, or the Druze of the Golan Heights count for anything? Moreover, for now the law only applies to the occupied territories, which were annexed by Israel and not the rest of the West Bank, but for how long?

Legislation which will end in reducing the Arab representation in the Israeli elected body is irresponsible and dangerous

Yossi Mekelberg

Knowing the salami tactics employed by those who oppose territorial compromises in Israel, this is likely to be only the first step before demanding similar legislation for the rest of the occupied West Bank. The referendum law in a pretence of fortifying democratic processes, is no more than a cynical act, by Prime Minister Netanyahu, Naftali Bennet and their supporters, to drag the country to a bruising and divisive campaign, which will make any future peace agreement a remote possibility. Almost too obviously, their intention is to use a referendum as a last resort for the Israeli government if it is successfully pressurised by the international community to agree to territorial concessions.

The Oslo years’ experience was one of constant incitement by the opposition against Rabin’s government, spreading malicious accusations against the peace negotiators and their intentions. This sinister campaign against the peacemakers in Israel must be very familiar to the current Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, as he previously led it to a disastrous effect. To make things worse, the new law was legislated as a Basic Law, which as a result would be almost impossible to reverse. Nonetheless, I would like to suggest that this gambit may backfire on the Israeli government.

What the people want

Most evidence points out that the Israeli population is ready to accept giving up territory for an enduring peace with their neighbours. It is highly likely that if the decision is brought to the people’s approval, most Israelis will accept the price of peace, even if grudgingly. Unfortunately, the lead up to such a referendum might leave the country bruised and bleeding. It is also worth remembering that in the past Israeli governments, including the Likud party, withdrew from territories without holding a referendum, for instance from the Sinai Peninsula or the Gaza Strip. Had Netanyahu genuinely been pursuing peace with his Palestinian interlocutors, the absence of a referendum would not have been an obstacle.

The other vertex of the legislation triangle was the governance law, which aims to make future governments stream lined and efficient, but in the process will sacrifice the representativeness of the Knesset in the name of governability. Limiting the number of member of ministers to 18, and getting rid of ministers without portfolios, can only be praised. However, raising the threshold of entry to the Knesset to a minimum of four members is more controversial, as it may see the disappearance mainly of the Arab parties from the Israeli parliament. It is self-evident, that the multitude of parties in the Knesset make the task of forming a government and governing very difficult. Nevertheless, election results in Israel provide an accurate picture of the diversity, or the fragmentation in Israeli society on a broad range of issues.

Reducing Arab representation

Legislation which will end in reducing the Arab representation in the Israeli elected body is irresponsible and dangerous. Groups within a society without a voice in the political process become alienated and elements within them might pursue their interests outside the legitimate processes. For a community which is already suffering from neglect and discrimination, this move may lead to undermining the more moderate elements among it. The suggestion that Arab-Israelis should be represented by only one, may be two, parties implies that the Arab population, unlike the Jewish one in Israel, does not have the same right to a diversity of opinion and representation.

Conversely, under this legislation, some re-alignment will have to take place to ensure representation in the Israeli sovereign body. Even more importantly, it might lead many Arab voters in Israel to participate in elections in higher numbers, as currently their participation is lower than that of the Jewish population. Another long term consequence of this legislation might be a change in voting patterns. Many Arab-Israelis who currently vote for Jewish parties might stop doing so in solidarity with Arab parties. Currently, the members of the Arab parties in the Knesset represent around half of the Arab-Israeli electorate potential. This last week might be a wakeup call for them to guarantee their position in the political power configuration in Israel.

Typically the current government’s legislation falls victim to narrow-minded and short term considerations, as they try to appease their constituents and keep their seats in government. These considerations took precedence over the inclusiveness and integration of Arab Israelis into society, and also put the prospect of reaching peace with Syria and the Palestinians under serious threat.

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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