A View From Israel: Democracy and Hypocrisy

The bills being debated in the Knesset threaten the Left – but that doesn’t mean they threaten democracy.

November 25, 2011 16:21
3 minute read.
A woman signs a Peace Now petition

Peace Now petition 521. (photo credit: Reuters)

The debate currently under way in the Knesset over several controversial bills has taken the country by storm. Opponents of the proposed legislation claim that the bills are “anti-democratic” and seek to limit freedom of expression. But I have yet to hear a clear explanation as to why any of these bills go against the grain of democracy. What is undemocratic about them? Perhaps it is the reverse. Perhaps today’s situation concerning NGOs, the courts and libel is undemocratic and it is these bills that can, albeit imperfectly, contribute to assuring that Israel remains a robust democracy.

The controversy revolves around the NGO Funding Transparency Law, an amendment to the Libel Law, and the Bar Association Bill.

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As explained by The Jerusalem Post’s Lahav Harkov earlier this week, the NGO Funding Transparency Law would limit the amount of funds non-government organizations can receive from abroad.

The Libel Law, proposed by MKs Yariv Levin (Likud) and Meir Sheetrit (Kadima), would raise the penalty for libel without proof of damages from NIS 50,000 to NIS 300,000, should it pass in its second and third readings. If damage were proven, the penalty would be up to NIS 600,000, and the amount could jump to NIS 1.5 million if the media outlet refused to publish the harmed party’s reaction.

The Bar Association Bill, proposed by Israel Beiteinu faction chairman Robert Ilatov, coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) and others, would regulate who represents the Bar Association in the Judicial Selection Committee, enforcing that one member of the opposition and one from the coalition are appointed.

SINCE THE 1977 elections which brought the Right to power, the Left has felt cheated. The Right won in democratic elections, but that wasn’t good enough. To them, it was a fluke and not truly representative of the public’s desires.

But the Left’s hypocrisy has long been obvious. A recent example occurred when Hamas won the 2006 elections – suddenly, it was perfectly democratic and acceptable.

As it is the Left that still controls the media, judiciary and civil society organizations, it isn’t surprising that the bills being debated in the Knesset threaten the Left – but that doesn’t mean they threaten democracy.

These are internationally accepted ways of preventing the undermining of democracy and a number of countries have similar, if not stricter, laws in place.

Israel is certainly not alone in attempting to curb foreign influence in its domestic matters.

The EU Freedom of Information Law specifically outlines the operating requirements for NGOs, among them the need for transparency.

The US has the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) for the same purpose – to prevent foreign intervention in domestic issues.

SO WHY have Israelis taken to the streets to protest such laws? Hundreds of left-wing activists gathered in front of Habimah National Theater in Tel Aviv Tuesday night in protest against these bills.

Meretz and Peace Now were among the organizations who called for the gathering.

On Monday, Kadima MK Yoel Hasson hosted a “Conference to Save Democracy,” featuring MKs, judges and law professors, most of whom opposed both bills on the Knesset agenda.

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni (Kadima) accused the coalition of proposing bills that “harm the checks and balances on the government. First, the government will weaken the courts, the press and human rights NGOs. Then, they will be able to pass any laws they want, because the court will do what they want and the media will be afraid to criticize.”

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu defended the libel bill following opposition claims that it was “anti-democratic,” saying, “As long as I am prime minister, Israel will continue to be a strong democracy.”

It appears that the frenzied nervousness of the Left stems from a deep-rooted belief that the Right is intent on destroying the current existing elements of democracy in this country and suppressing freedom of speech. Theirs is an unfortunate inability to recognize that these laws are not “extreme,” “anti-democratic” or “fascist,” but rather an attempt to limit the ability of anyone, including those on the Right, to hammer away at this country’s strong democratic foundation.

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