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Israel loses its grip on democracy

The social and political divide in Israel is no longer between left and right, but between those who do and do not believe in democracy.
by Charles Enderlin
Israel’s right and far right claim almost every week to have unmasked more traitors: leftwing NGOs are described as “moles financed by foreign powers” collaborating with the “Palestinian enemy”; writers, artists, political figures have been accused online, and subjected to racist insults and threats because they oppose the occupation of the Palestinian territories, or simply defend democracy.

Even Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, became a victim last December, after speaking at a conference in New York (organised by the leftwing Israeli newspaperHaaretz) while representatives of Breaking the Silence were in the room. This association of former Israeli soldiers, who talk about their service in the occupied territories, is accused of harming the image of Israel and its armed forces, and criticised for providing evidence to the UN commission of inquiry on the 2014 Gaza conflict. The Israeli government refused to cooperate with the commission, whose report described acts that could amount to war crimes perpetrated both by Israel and by Palestinian armed groups (1).

In February the Israeli parliament approved a bill on NGO transparency at its first reading by 50 votes to 43 (the Knesset has 120 members). Proposed by justice minister Ayelet Shaked, of the pro-settlement party The Jewish Home, the new law requires any organisation that receives funding from a foreign government to name the donors in published documents, and in its dealings with Israeli organisations and officials. Failure to comply is punishable by a fine of $7,500. It affects many leftwing and human rights organisations that receive government funding from Europe or North America, but not those that get money from foreign private donors, such as rightwing organisations that support settlement. The vote, criticised by the EU and the US, took place in a climate of mistrust towards part of civil society, marked in particular by a hardening of prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s political agenda.

Rightwing and far-right movements, supported by a number of government ministers, are increasing their efforts to delegitimise human rights NGOs. The most active movement is Im Tirtzu, a student organisation (the name, meaning “If you will it”, is from a saying of Theodor Herzl). It was founded by Ronen Shoval in 2006, after a meeting with Moti Karpel, a leader of the settlers’ movement and the author of Revolution Through Faith (2003, in Hebrew), which advocates the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem and the imposition of Israeli sovereignty over all of the “land of Israel”; Arabs would be reduced to foreign residents with no political rights (ger toshav). Shoval’s mission is to renew “Zionist discourse, Zionist thinking and Zionist ideology”, combat “the campaign of delegitimisation against the state of Israel and [provide] responses to post-Zionist and anti-Zionist phenomena” (2). Im Tirtzu’s leadership do not want their movement to be called fascist, but their attempts to sue various organisations for defamation have been unsuccessful (3).

Wrongly accused

With the help of rightwing members of the Knesset, Im Tirtzu has had some successes, particularly against Breaking the Silence, whose members were wrongly accused of supporting the international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign (4), and playing into the hands of Israel’s enemies; they were denied access to the armed forces and secondary schools. With the help of Moshe Klughaft, a close adviser of Naftali Bennett, education minister and chair of The Jewish Home, Im Tirtzu has now produced a video that shows a man brandishing a knife at the camera, with this voice-over: “Before this terrorist stabs you, he already knows that Yishai Menuhin [of the Public Committee Against Torture],an agent of the Netherlands, will protect him from interrogation by Shin Bet [internal security].He also knows that Avner Gvaryahu [of Breaking the Silence], a German agent, will call any soldier who tries to stop him a war criminal. He knows that Sigi Ben-Ari [of the Centre for the Defence of the Individual], a Norwegian agent, will defend him in court. And he knows that Hagai El-Ad [of Btselem], an agent for the European Union, will accuse Israel of war crimes. Hagai, Yishai, Avner and Sigi are Israelis. They live here, among us, and are moles. While we fight terror, they fight us” (5). By this logic, the EU, which supports a two-state solution, is hostile to Israel and complicit in terrorism.

Im Tirtzu has high-profile patrons, among them university professors such as Robert Aumann, winner of the 2005 Sveriges Riksbank prize in economic sciences in memory of Alfred Nobel; Georges-Elia Sarfati (France), of the Sorbonne, and lawyers including Daphne Netanyahu, sister-in-law of the prime minister. Strengthened by their support, the organisation crossed another threshold by denouncing as leftist “moles” some of Israel’s leading writers and artists — Amos Oz, Abraham B Yehoshua, David Grossmann — and actors. Though the government and the right had, until then, maintained a complicit silence on this McCarthyism, some voices of dissent were heard. Benny Begin, a historical figure in Likud (Netanyahu’s party) and son of the late prime minister Menachem Begin, said: “Singling out so-called traitors is an old fascist technique that is both ugly and dangerous,” calling Im Tirtzu’s initiative “embarrassing, pointless and degrading”. Netanyahu was forced to respond: “I oppose the use of the word traitor to describe those who disagree with me. We are a democracy and there are a multitude of opinions.” But he denounced Breaking the Silence for “slandering the state of Israel” (6).

Culture minister Miri Regev, a member of Likud, published this clarification: “The public does have a right to know, but we should avoid statements that could lead to incitement and violence.” Yet she is targeting leftwing artists, as can be seen in her “cultural loyalty” bill, which seeks to deny government subsidies to any artist who attacks symbols of the state, supports terrorism or opposes the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state (7). The public have not rejected this move. In 2015, 59% of Israeli Jews supported Regev’s attitude towards artists, according to a survey by the Israeli Democracy Institute (8). NGOs that defend human rights are unpopular in Israel: in 2013, 52% of survey respondents believed they denigrated the state.

‘It smells like Weimar’

The “intifada of knives” — Palestinian attacks against armed forces personnel and civilians — is hardening social attitudes and pushing them to the right. Every month, the Berl Katznelson Foundation’s Hate Report website identifies an average of 500,000 hate-inspired or racist comments and exchanges (9). In January, journalist Nahum Barnea likened the situation in Israel to the political violence in Germany between 1918 and 1933, before the Nazis seized power: “It’s like the Weimar republic. It smells like Weimar. It’s cancerous like Weimar. We are not living in the Weimar republic, but what is happening now recalls many aspects of what happened then. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe this wave of incitement to hatred will make Israelis realise what a slippery slope it is. The wonderful life we have — compared with our neighbours — makes us blind. A little while ago, I met one of the writers on one of the lists [of ‘traitors’]. He told me: ‘Netanyahu is flying our plane straight at a mountain.’ I replied: ‘Yes, that’s the bad news. The good news is we’re in business class” (10).

Netanyahu, prime minister for the past seven years, is certain that Israel is headed in the correct direction and keeps it on a rightward course in economic and social matters, and in relation to Palestinians and his political opponents. He claims the Israeli left have always got it wrong. In a book published in 1995, after the Oslo accords, he explained that the left had “a predisposition to absorb arguments from Arab propaganda founded on the principle of the ‘inalienable rights of the Palestinian people’, which would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state alongside a diminished Israel. This syndrome comes from the chronic illness that has affected the Jewish people since the beginning of the 20th century: the Marxism that pervades Jewish left, far-left and communist movements in eastern Europe.” This explains why “intelligent, moral and cultivated people maintain that Israel must leave the territories. […] We are seeing a rise of anti-Semitism, a huge wave of hatred of Israel, because of the growing strength of Islamism, while the assimilation of diaspora Jews is progressing rapidly. But this is of no great concern to the political leadership of the left, who are working to ‘free Palestinians from the burden of Israeli occupation’ by abandoning the heart of the Jewish homeland” (11).

Netanyahu has made it his mission to ensure the survival of the Jewish people on their territory. According to Eldad Yaniv of the Peres Academic Centre, “there is a complete coherence between his ideology and his political strategy. He is certain that if a leftwing government or even other leaders from the right came to power, it would be disastrous for Israel, of which he sees himself as the guardian” (12).

It was only after his fourth election victory in 20 years that Netanyahu was able, in May 2015, to form the coalition he wanted. Freed from the need to involve centrist or Labour elements, he can now govern as he sees fit. Besides being head of the government, he is in charge of the economy, communication and foreign affairs, where he has appointed Tsipi Hotovely as deputy minister. Hotovely is a Likud member of Knesset (MK) with close links to religious Zionism, and is fiercely opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu was well aware of what he was doing when he sent her to deliver his government’s message to the international community — that the West Bank is not occupied but is an integral part of Israel’s territory. The day she assumed office, Hotovely set out her beliefs before diplomats and senior foreign ministry officials: “We must return to the basic truth about our right to the land. […] Of course, the world understands Israel’s security needs, but arguments of ethics and justice will trump security arguments.” She quoted Rashi, 11th-century commentator on the Talmud: “[God] granted [Canaan] to [the seven nations]. It was His will that they should have it, and by His will He took it from them and gave it to us.”

Rewriting the law

In 2011 Netanyahu had the Knesset pass a bill against boycotts of the settlements. Proposed by Likud MK Zeev Elkin after a large number of artists had refused to perform in the settlements, it was passed by 47 votes to 38. The law makes it possible to bring legal proceedings against any person or institution refusing to conclude economic, cultural or academic agreements with individuals or organisations because of their links with Israel or regions under its control (the occupied territories). An appeal to the High Court of Justice filed by leftwing NGOs was dismissed in 2015. The judges merely deleted the article that allowed tribunals to impose unlimited penalties on anyone calling for a boycott, even if no commercial or economic damage was proved.

This judgment surprised Talia Sasson, who headed a division of the State Attorney’s office and is now president of the New Israel Fund, which finances several dozen Israeli NGOs: “I was ashamed that the High Court had approved this law. Its only purpose is to muzzle the left. What it should have done is to make a distinction between boycotting the state of Israel — I would have been in favour of that — and boycotting the settlements. It’s unacceptable. Indeed, in its judgment, the Supreme Court had established that the West Bank is not part of the state of Israel, which has not imposed its sovereignty there.”

Netanyahu’s determination was confirmed during the council of ministers’ debate of the NGO “transparency” bill. Netanyahu approved the text, though he made amendments, deleting a provision that required members of NGOs receiving funding from foreign governments to wear an identifying badge when they visited the Knesset. MK Tzipi Livni, leader of the centrist Hatnuah (The Movement) party, allied with the Labour Party, has held a number of ministerial posts over the past decade. She emphasised the significance of this text: “When I was in government, as minister of justice, I could veto bills like this one, or reject most of them. Except that ultimate authority doesn’t rest with the justice minister, but with the head of the government. If he wants to, he can reject a bill. To preserve his coalition, he can allow the extremist elements of his government to set the tone, which, I am very sad to say, is the case today. I am against such bills. We are in opposition, and we try to stop them, but we have limited powers.” Sasson calls the bill “stupid, something intended to silence the left. The right’s policy today is not to engage in debate with the left, but to silence it.”

The left is losing momentum, according to Professor Tamar Hermann: “In the early 1990s, you could still talk about two opposing camps. That is no longer the case. I don’t talk about the left any more, but about the 20% of the Jewish population who are secular, urban, educated, universalist and liberal. […] The children of this group have not received the answers they were expecting from their parents, and have turned to a basic form of Jewish identity, of which they are now prisoners.” Hermann points out that in 2009, surveys indicated that more than 51% of Israeli Jews believed in the coming of the Messiah and 67% believed that the Jews are the chosen people. Respondents included religious, but also traditionalist and secular Jews (13). Seven years on, the nationalist religious camp has grown further and 22% of the Jewish population now identify with its values (14).

Livni is concerned by the trends emerging in Jewish society: “The Jewish general publicare under the impression that we are surrounded by enemies. That is the reality in the tough neighbourhood we live in. There is terrorism directed against Israel; Islamic extremism is growing. Unfortunately, part of our society is turning in on itself. It is nervous of external threats, but also of internal ones, in the form of minorities and groups opposed to the government’s policies. Netanyahu pointed the finger at them during his electoral campaign. People perceive Arab citizens of Israel, leftwing organisations and foreign governments as working together. Sectors of Israeli society are also identified with the enemy. […] As far as I’m concerned,Israel is, without a doubt, the only true democracy in the Middle East and must be an integral part of what is known as the free world.”

Netanyahu is hoping to push through a constitutional bill that redefines Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and provides for legislation to be inspired by the principles of Judaism. The law would define the regime as democratic, but only Jews would have collective rights; Muslims and Christians — 20% of the population — would only enjoy individual rights provided by law. As Sasson sees it, this means “the fundamental antagonism in this country is not between left and right, but between those for and against democracy.” As the failure of the Israel-Palestine peace process seems to be pointing inexorably towards a binational state, the anti-left campaign orchestrated by the government and the right challenges the future of democracy in Israel. And that issue also concerns Jewish communities in other countries, where most intellectuals are silent

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