Extreme Makeover

A surge of right-wing legislation may change the face of Israel and is causing people to question whether the government is defending democracy or damaging it.

By
June 30, 2011 14:14
The Knesset adjourning for its spring break.

Knesset session 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

LAWMAKERS AND THEIR aides rush through the Knesset hallways from one hearing to the next. Occasionally, they break stride to huddle with other legislators and with milling lobbyists who seem to excel at holding smart phones to one ear while partaking in the drop-toned corridor conversations.

This is where parliamentary business really takes place, where well-dressed men and women earnestly negotiate and then close kombinot (Hebrew slang for political and pork-barrel deals of the “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” variety) on pending legislation and bills yet to be born.

Lately, these hallways have exuded more than a whiff of a legislative urgency that’s unprecedented in the eyes of many and to some quite troubling.

“What Ben-Gurion feared all those years is happening now,” Yaron Ezrahi, one of Israel’s foremost political scientists who is highly identified with centrist-left politics, tells The Jerusalem Report. Referring to Israel’s mythological founding father and first prime minister, Ezrahi continues, “Ben- Gurion spoke of the state as being above politics, and he often worried that this would not always be the case. The Right is seeking to bring the nation to it [instead of it going to the nation] through legislation. If we talk of Israel as being a Jewish and democratic state, the Jewish part is eating up the democratic part.” Ezrahi is pointing to a surge of legislation aimed at either favoring certain population groups at the expense of others or actually curtailing the rights of people and groups. These bills, some of which have already become law, almost invariably come from the right wing of the political spectrum, and those paying the price are Arabs and Jews alike, usually people on the Left but sometimes also ultra-Orthodox Jews.

“In the past two years, the right-wing parties seem to have entered a competition – who comes up with the most racist legislation,” MK Zehava Galon of the left-wing Meretz party tells The Report. “This is a very worrying trend; instead of the Knesset defending democracy, it’s actually harming it.” Among the legislation that’s been passed by the current 18th Knesset is the so-called Nakba Law, which mandates an end to public funding for groups that commemorate Nakba Day. Nakba is Arabic for catastrophe, which is how most Israeli Arabs mark May 15, the English date on which Israel declared its independence.

“If it were merely the bill against commemorating the Nakba, we might say OK, but I fear that all this legislation, taken together, will have serious implications for society, for our democracy and for our civil rights,” Debbie Gild-Hayo, legislative coordinator for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), tells The Report.

“All this legislation” refers to what Gild-Hayo calls “a wide-scale attack against NGOs, the country’s laws on equality and even the Supreme Court.” In addition to the Nakba Law, other legislation passed during the Knesset’s recent winter session makes it easier for residents of small Jewish towns in the Galilee and Negev – home to many Israeli Arabs and Beduin – to choose who can and cannot move in and harder for NGOs to obtain funding from foreign governments.



Another law allows the revocation of citizenship for Israelis convicted on charges of terrorism or espionage.

The current summer session is seeing activity on several bills, including proposed legislation to permit criminal charges to be brought against anyone seen to be slandering or libeling the state or its institutions; to allow the criminal trial and imprisonment of illegal infiltrators, including migrants; to clamp down on the rights of foreign caregivers; and to afford preferential government employment and services to IDF veterans and those who perform an alternative type of national service (which leaves out many Arabs, who are exempted from IDF service by law, and ultra-Orthodox Jews, many of whom claim exemptions because they are engaged in full-time religious study).

“We didn’t see this kind of legislative activity in the previous Knesset, neither in quantity nor in quality,” Gild-Hayo says. “In the past, this type of legislation was primarily sponsored by MKs from the extreme right.

Today, members of the coalition are behind some of these bills and even some centrists.”

IN ISRAELI POLITICS, RIGHT, LEFT and center refer mostly to one’s stand on security and diplomatic issues. As such, these terms are most often applied when addressing Israel’s dispute with the Arabs in general, and with the Palestinians in particular.

But because so much of this dispute has lately taken on a distinctly domestic flavor – with accusations, mostly from the right, that Israeli Arabs and Jewish peace groups have become a fifth column that is no less dangerous to the Jewish state than its external enemies – political labels also come into play when the talk turns to civil liberties.

In the 17th Knesset, which sat from April 2006 through March 2009, there were 34 members whose parties were considered left of center and 32 whose parties were to the right. If one includes the country’s two ultra- Orthodox parties, which, although often siding with the right, are actually considered swing votes on many issues, the center numbered 54 MKs.

Ehud Olmert, who assumed the leadership of the Kadima party after party founder Ariel Sharon was incapacitated by a series of strokes, assembled a coalition that included both Labor and the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, and for a while, until disagreements over the peace process with the Palestinians arose, even the hard-line Yisrael Beiteinu.

But by the time elections came around in February 2009, Israeli public opinion seemed to have shifted. Israelis had suffered something of a shock in light of the IDF’s relatively disappointing performance in the 2006 Second Lebanon War. Sharon’s 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip had brought little more than an incessant barrage of Islamistlaunched rockets, which led to Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008/2009. And despite word that Olmert was considering some major concessions, including in Jerusalem, the peace process with the Palestinians had gone nowhere.

Furthermore, Olmert, beset by serious allegations of corruption, was by now a caretaker prime minister, having been replaced as party leader by Tzipi Livni. But the party’s fortunes had dropped so far that Livni was unable to form her own coalition, sending the country to the polls more than a year early.

The results were predictable.

The 18th Knesset was sworn in on March 31, 2009, with just 22 MKs to the left of center (a decline of over one-third from the 17th Knesset) and 49 members of centrist or swing parties (a drop of almost 10%). The number of MKs from right-wing parties, meanwhile, jumped to 49, a spike of more than 50 percent.

Although Kadima had won a plurality of the vote, with 28 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, President Shimon Peres turned to Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud was very close behind with 27 seats, to form a coalition.

Aside from two national votes that featured the direct election of the prime minister, this was the first time an Israeli head of state ignored the leader of the largest Knesset faction when looking for a head of government.

And there was no need to ask why Peres acted as he did, since the logic was clear: If Livni couldn’t form a coalition in the previous Knesset, she certainly didn’t stand a chance in the new constellation of powers.

WHEN THE MEDIA SPOTLIGHT falls on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, it’s usually to illuminate what’s often perceived to be the cause for his hard-line stance on peace. In the meantime, many of the coalition’s members are working in the relative shadows to fend off what they consider enemies much closer to home.

“There is a need to keep Israel a Jewish and democratic state,” MK David Rotem tells The Report.

Rotem is one of the most high-profile members of Yisrael Beiteinu, the senior Netanyahu coalition partner headed by the always controversial Avigdor Lieberman. A 62-year-old lawyer with a trim gray beard and thick, dark brows that seem to rest across the tops of his scholarly glasses, Rotem chairs the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, a convenient perch that has helped put him behind much of the Knesset’s controversial domestic legislation.

“Whoever doesn’t want to be a full partner by fulfilling all the obligations of citizenship shouldn’t be allowed to enjoy its fruits,” he says in a deep, gravelly voice. “These things should be self-evident. I don’t understand what all the fuss is about.” Rotem was the lead sponsor of the Acceptance Committee Law, which gives legal grounding to small villages that wish to deny residency to those they see as “unsuitable.” “When you have a small village that wants, for example, to have a national- religious character, it should have the right to do so,” Rotem explains. “People want to know that their children can eat at a neighbor’s house without having to worry about kashrut.” The Association for Civil Rights in Israel sees it differently.

“The bill primarily intends to deny ethnic minorities access to Jewish communities set up on predominantly public lands, offering the possibility to reject anyone who does not fit in with the committee’s positions, religion, political views, and so on,” ACRI declared in a report published in April on the Knesset’s winter session.

Rotem retorts heatedly. “No one is preventing Arabs from establishing villages. There’s nothing racist going on here. People who criticize laws like this are those who want a state for all its citizens,” he says, using what has come to be the code-phrase for an Israel that’s been denuded of its Jewishness.

“This has to be a Jewish state.” ACRI acknowledges that the original bill was watered down, but says it wasn’t watered down enough.

“As part of a proposed compromise between [Knesset] Speaker [Reuven] Rivlin and the MKs who proposed the law, amendments included applying the law to the Negev and Galilee regions alone, and applying the law to communities of up to 400 family units instead of the original 500. ACRI finds both utterly unsatisfactory,” its report said.

As Knesset speaker, Rivlin, a Jerusalem attorney and veteran member of Netanyahu’s Likud, monitors legislation from the moment it’s proposed to the final gavel declaring it’s either become law or been defeated. In 2010, he himself sponsored a law grant-ing blanket pardons to Jewish settlers and their supporters arrested while trying to block Israel’s 2005 exit from Gaza and its 21 settlements.

(ACRI’s Gild-Hayo says this law, too, is unfair. “What about other [non-right-wing] protesters? Will they be pardoned?”) Rivlin’s bureau was contacted for comment on this article, but as of press time there was still no reply. Yet the speaker now seems attuned to some of society’s discomfort with the recent legislation.

“I am sorry to say,” he told the nation during the Knesset speaker’s annual Independence Eve address, “that it seems as though… many good people among us [elected officials and those who shape public opinion] have regarded the Israeli social mosaic as an unfortunate situation that we must fight against, rather than as a reality we must come to terms with and live with. For example, over the past year, our public discourse has been marred by repeated attempts to emasculate the spirited debate taking place in our society, whether by silencing those voices or whether by removing various groups from that society.”

Rivlin alluded to a recent uproar caused by a series of “rabbis’ letters” that invoked particular interpretations of Jewish law to bar non-Jews [read: Arabs] from certain neighborhoods and to tensions between the secular and the religious, especially the ultra- Orthodox. But most notably, perhaps, he pointed a finger at his own house, citing “harmful legislation.”

SUPPORTERS OF THE LEGISLATION sponsored by Rotem and others on Israel’s Right say much of it is necessary in light of the numerous threats Israel faces.

“This legislation is often about domestic political issues – it allows for domestic political gain,” Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, tells The Report. “Other legislation, however, shows a broader concern for such issues as delegitimization and boycotts, which are of serious national concern.” One piece of legislation enacted during the Knesset’s 2011 winter session, the Funding from Foreign State Entities bill, was of special interest to Steinberg, who also heads NGO Monitor, a watchdog group that seeks transparency in non-governmental organizations and lately has been targeting the issue of funding from foreign governments, which he claims is practiced solely by left-wing bodies. In its original version, the bill demanded that such NGOs report every contribution, no matter how small, and mention the foreign government funding on every document and in every statement.

After being sent back to committee following complaints by legal experts that these conditions would probably be unenforceable, the final version stipulated only that the NGOs provide quarterly financial reports and prominently display in their fund-raising ads that they receive money from foreign governments.

“In my view,” Steinberg says, “legislation is a last resort and should be used minimally.

Civic and educational approaches are more desirable. So is transparency, which would reduce the need for much of this legislation. But approximately 100 million euros are going every year into the Palestinian narrative. The public has a right to know this. The Knesset acted appropriately, in my opinion.”

As a political scientist, he’s asked whether such legislation is a threat to democracy.


“I’d say the opposite,” he quickly replies. “When people attack others or their activities as McCarthyism and call it a threat to democracy, this in itself is antidemocratic because it seeks to block legitimate criticism.”

Steinberg quickly notes his belief that the legislation on foreign funding has already borne fruit. “In Europe there is now a greater awareness of the internal debate within Israel,” he says, adding that the British government had stopped funding several Israeli NGOs, a claim that The Report was unable to verify. “The Dutch, Danish and Swiss have all either changed or are reexamining their funding for political NGOs. I believe the Knesset debates and legislation have helped bring about these changes. The Europeans are realizing that Israelis are rightly upset that there is outside influence in internal Israeli affairs.”

MOST RECENTLY, YEHUDA Weinstein, Israel’s attorney general, reportedly took a stand against legislation now making its way through the Knesset that aims to force the civil service to give preference to army veterans and those who did an alternative form of community service.

“The bill creates discrimination that cannot be constitutionally justified,” Weinstein wrote to Prime Minister Netanyahu, according to Israel’s Channel 2 news. “It is targeted at populations that already suffer from deep discrimination, like the Arab population and people with disabilities, and is accompanied by a feeling of insult and humiliation, which also constitutes injury to human rights.” The sponsor of the bill is Hamad Amar of Yisrael Beiteinu, the party’s sole Druze MK.

“This law does not refer to any sectors,” Amar tells The Report, seemingly with little patience. “It speaks about giving preference to people who serve their country either in uniform or by doing alternative national service in their communities. Whoever is against my law is against people who serve their country or community.” He says that while among the general population the proportion of young people who do some kind of service is less than two-thirds, among the Druze it’s close to 85 percent. “I haven’t heard any complaints about this bill from the Druze community,” he insists.

But what about Weinstein’s complaints? “I’ll explain to the attorney general that my bill will encourage people to give of themselves rather than demand everything on a silver platter,” Amar says. “If people don’t want to or can’t serve in the military, for whatever reason, they should do alternative service. Service is for everyone.”

Meretz MK Zehava Galon takes credit for bringing Weinstein into the game.

“A few weeks ago I asked the Knesset’s legal adviser for his views on the Hamad bill,” she tells The Report. “I wondered how legislation like this could go under everyone’s radar, including the Knesset legal adviser’s. He agreed, and soon the attorney general agreed.”

She feels that people, whether MKs, members of watchdog groups or the public, have simply become numb to all the rightwing legislation.

“There’s been so much activity in this sphere,” she explains. “People were oblivious or just didn’t care. The prime minister should have banged on the table, telling his coalition, ‘We have a majority, but this kind of legislation is just not right.’” Political scientist Ezrahi is even more critical of Netanyahu.

“In the last four months, Netanyahu has been a hard-core right-winger, a fundamentalist- nationalist whose motto is like that of [former prime minister Yitzhak] Shamir: do nothing,” Ezrahi says. “He is enabling this legislation and even encouraging it. He is giving the Right a free hand to push legislation that goes against the very principals of democracy.”

Ezrahi barely conceals his disgust when speaking of one of the bills that passed during the Knesset’s winter session.

“The Acceptance Committees Law reflects some of the Nuremberg legislation,” he says. “If you take the law and translate it into German, people in Germany would ask, ‘Are you bringing us back to the 1930s?’” He scoffs at the notion that MKs sponsor such bills out of fear that the Jewishness of the state is being undermined.

“I don’t think they feel a threat,” he says.

“They are seizing a political opportunity.

They know that a right-wing bloc cannot be sustainable over time. They are seeking an opportunity to institutionalize themselves.”

A decade ago, Ezrahi was part of a group of top academic and legal figures who attempted to draft a constitution, something that Israel lacks.

“We were mindful that a fundamental basis of a constitution is to limit the effect of politics. Without such checks and balances, the process of politicization becomes ruthless and continues unabated,” he says. “We were deeply aware of the fact that the Supreme Court is weakened every time it’s called upon to reverse legislation. It cannot continue to take the brunt of facing down the Right. Each time it rejects something, the right wing in the Knesset moves to curtail its powers.”

Indeed, many on the Right complain that the Supreme Court, which often hears cases that would normally be covered by a constitution, is a bastion of liberalism. In 2010, Yisrael Beiteinu’s Rotem introduced a bill seeking to curtail some of its power by proposing a special constitutional court. The catch, however, was that the justices’ decisions would have to be unanimous – and the justices themselves would be required to pledge allegiance not just to Israel, but to a Jewish state. The bill is now in deep-freeze due to disagreements within the coalition.

Whether it is weakened by hearing antilegislation petitions or not, the country’s top court recently gave the state two months to explain why the Acceptance Committees Law should not be rescinded. The petitioners were several NGOs, including ACRI.

“The law enables committees to reject an applicant on the basis of an expert opinion, even a graphologist, whereas in the past, it could only be a psychologist’s professional assessment,” ACRI attorney Gil Gan-Mor told reporters following the June 20 hearing.

“This gives a license to reject anybody for practically any reason. The respondents [the state] say it themselves, that the purpose of the law is to maintain homogeneity – something we believe is unjustifiable in a democratic country.”

Meretz MK Galon prefers to look at the wider picture.

“We are at war. We do have problems. It’s been said that democracy has to defend itself with one hand tied behind its back,” she tells The Report. “But there’s a slippery slope we’ve been on for some time. When you get to what you think is the bottom, you suddenly see there’s more.”


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