Assessing the “only democracy in the Middle East”

A true democracy is a nation that respects the rights of all its citizens (or at least strives to). Israel is not that country.

More evidence for the prosecution by Dimi Reider in the New York Review of Books:

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.”

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.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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