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How the Israeli govt is undermining democratic values

Israel inside pre-1967 borders still has strong democratic tenets, but recent trends represent a slippery slope

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

Continuously and persistently the current Israeli government is eroding the democratic values of the country. It does it through limiting freedom of speech, threatening legislators with sanctions, harassing human rights organisations and constantly attacking the High Court of Justice.

By defining the state as Jewish it became a very difficult task to be democratic and pluralistic from the outset. Bestowing privileges on the Jewish population that others do not necessarily enjoy, and introducing immigration laws that almost exclusively favour those with Jewish origins, created an inherent tension with what most expect of a democracy. Some of these discriminations were justified, though not always very convincingly, by the history of the Jewish people and the state of war with the surrounding Arab countries. Yet, despite these profound democratic shortcomings, somehow this nascent democracy managed to plough along and develop democratic traditions of freedom of expression, the universal right to vote and run for office and an independent judicial system.

However, there have always been elements in the Israeli society that resented that everyone could enjoy all rights equally – regrettably their representatives constitute the majority of those in government and in power right now. It would be unwise not to relate these worrying trends to the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians. The nearly five decades long occupation of another people, while violating its civil and political rights, gradually creeps into Israeli society itself.

In three separate, though not unrelated acts, the Israeli coalition government demonstrated little regard for civil and political rights. First the Israeli legislature, the Knesset, passed a bill, which is misleadingly called the "transparency bill" by its sponsor, far-right Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. It requires NGOs to give details of overseas donations if more than half of their funding comes from foreign governments or official bodies such as the European Union or US Government. Ostensibly, this is a measure that equally affects all civil society organisations. A closer examination reveals that this is far from being the case.

Israel inside pre-1967 borders still has strong democratic tenets, but recent trends represent a slippery slope

Yossi Mekelberg

Financial support from official international bodies goes for the most part to human and civil rights organisations and those who are pro-active in advancing peace with the Palestinians. On the other hand, private donors and the Israeli government support NGOs on the right side of the political map, including those from within the Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank. This piece of legislation is a clear attempt to muzzle the human rights and pro-peace watchdogs of the Israeli society. Ms Shaked and the other legislatures that supported the bill may play innocent and claim that transparency is what they were after, but what in fact transpires is that this is a blunt attempt to delegitimize inconvenient criticism of the government and its policies. History is replete with brutal attempts to silence dissenting voices by associating them with foreign interests, instead of addressing what are perfectly legitimate concerns.

Challenge the opposition, don’t silence it

The so called “transparency bill” is not an isolated case. Last month after a stormy debate in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament passed another contentious piece of legislation that enables the expulsion or ousting of a lawmaker for incitement to racism and support of armed struggle against the state. Although as such it does not look that ominous, in the specific context of Israel it could be cynically exploited to curtail the freedom of expression of elected members of parliament. It leaves dangerous room for the majority to discard with opposition. It is impossible to escape the strong feeling that the bill is intended to target Arab legislators; it could almost be called the Haneen Zoabi bill. Ms Zoabi is an Arab-Israeli member of parliament, who is known for her radical views and being very articulate in expressing them. Many, including within her own constituency, would have wished her to be more nuanced and accept the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as rather more complex than the way she approaches it. Yet, the strength of a genuine democracy and a pluralist society is to challenge her arguments, not to try and silence her, or other members of Knesset with opposing views through undemocratic legislation.

Whereas opposing legislators and civil society organizations irritate the Netanyahu government, no sector does more to upset it than the media. Media networks and journalists are on the receiving end of venomous verbal attacks by members of the coalition for what can only be regarded as fulfilling their public duty of overseeing government activities and informing the public. Recently the commander of the Army Radio was summoned for a ‘chat’ by the Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, to discus the radio station’s broadcast of a program that discussed the works of the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish. The outraged Lieberman, not known for his subtlety or sophistication as a literary critic, compared airing the poems of Darwish to the “glorification of the literary marvels of Adolf Hitler.”

Mahmoud Darwish, may be controversial in Israel, but his works are still taught in high schools in Israel. Moreover, what value is there to a pluralist society if it cannot at least intelligently discuss, in a civilized manner, political art, even if it challenges or even upsets part of that society? Comparing Darwish’s work to that of Hitler’s reflects a loss of grip on reality and borders on the verge of hysteria; even by the standards of a politician that feeds on division, fear and hatred.

This is a small litany of Israeli government acts, through formal legislation or verbal bullying, to diminish the freedom of expression and limit debate within its own society. Israel inside pre-1967 borders still has strong democratic tenets, but recent trends represent a slippery slope, if not proactively resisted might change the face of the country for the worse.


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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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