Israel's Endangered Left

Many claim Israel's democracy is under attack. A spate of new laws may prove them right.

According to many liberals and left wingers, Israel's democracy is under attack and under threat, with politicians currently promoting a series of laws that will curtail press freedom, left-wing NGO activities and the independence of the Supreme Court. One commentator, while agreeing that Israel is still a liberal democracy, defined what the right-wing coalition government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, is doing as "nibbling away" at the foundations of Israeli democracy.

Meanwhile, last summer's mass protests calling for "social justice"— cheaper food and housing, higher wages and jobs for the unemployed—have petered out. The small tent encampments that sprang up in major towns now are cleared out, while most of the proposals of the Trachtenburg Committee, designed to alleviate some of the more prominent ills, are mired in the governmental bureaucracy and in Knesset committees. Nothing practical has yet resulted from the protests, partly because the Defense Ministry is steadfastly refusing to cut its budget—accounting for some 20 percent of state spending—in light of the growing Arab Islamist and Iranian threats to the country.

In an unprecedented public appearance last week, Dorit Beinish, the outgoing president of the Supreme Court, denounced the bills currently under deliberation in the Knesset and the cabinet as an incitement against the court and as jeopardizing Israel's democratic values. She was referring to the bills designed to change the composition of the committee that selects judges to give politicians greater say in their selection. Other measures under her scrutiny would curtail funding by foreign governments and other outside bodies of Israeli NGOs, such as Peace Now, Yesh Gvul (which supports conscientious objection to military service in the occupied territories) and the New Israel Fund (which funds projects and groups seeking peace and cooperation with the Palestinians); and would institute Knesset hearings for candidates for the Supreme Court, thus giving the Knesset’s dominant right-wing and religious politicians the ability to stymie nominations.

Taken together, these bills represent "a delegitimisation campaign headed by a number of politicians, Knesset members and even cabinet ministers," she said, obliquely referring to Justice Minister Ya'akov Ne'eman, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who actively or passively support most of this prospective legislation. She may also have been referring to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who recently expressed support for changing the existing libel law to facilitate prosecution of alleged offenders, meaning mainly journalists. Barak has been in recent years a frequent target of attack in the Israeli press because of his opulent lifestyle and abandonment of the Labor Party, which he once headed. (He now heads a four-man Knesset faction called Atzma'ut, which is part of Netanyahu's right-wing coalition government. There is talk of his appearing in the Likud Party list in the coming elections.)

Critics of the Supreme Court have long alleged that it is "unrepresentative" of the Israeli public at large, with few if any Sephardim (Jews of Middle Eastern extraction) and only one Arab among its fifteen members. (Israel's Jewish population is roughly 40 percent Sephardi, and 20 percent of all Israelis are Arab.) They maintain that almost all the justices are from the upper middle class Ashkenazi elite who live, metaphorically, in "Rehavia,” the leafy middle class—originally German-Jewish—West Jerusalem neighborhood. Among these critics are a former justice minister, Tel Aviv University law professor Daniel Friedman, who has long maintained that the Supreme Court has amassed too much power and regularly intervenes in areas that properly belong to the executive and legislative branches of government.

The bill to limit foreign donations—meaning mainly from EU members—to Israeli NGOs is likely to be discussed in the ministerial legislation committee next week before being passed on to the Knesset for deliberation. Several variants have been bandied about. The bill currently supported by Netanyahu and Liberman is designed to curtail foreign support of Israeli associations that reject Israel's existence; preach racism; support armed struggle against Israel; support international prosecution of Israeli soldiers and legislators; support conscientious objection to IDF service; and support the international boycott of Israel. The proposed bill will provide for a 45 percent tax on all contributions by foreign governments, which will probably deter most would-be contributors (who won't want their contributions to flow to the Israeli government).

Yariv Oppenheimer, the secretary general of Peace Now, said that "Netanyahu is emerging as nothing less than a dictator who is trying through the law to silence the press, the judicial system and civil society.”

Benny Morris is a professor of history in the Middle East Studies Department of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. His most recent book is One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict (Yale University Press, 2009).