Beyond Right or Left

The only democracy in the Middle East is having some trouble with basic democratic principles.

By SUSAN H. ROLEF
February 9, 2011 22:17
3 minute read.
PM Binyamin Netanyahu walks through the Knesset

Netanyahu, Knesset 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

 
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Israel is proud to present itself as “the only democracy in the Middle East” and, on the purely formal level, one cannot refute the fact. It is also unlikely that despite the calls by several of our neighbors to oust their ruling dictators and allow free elections, this fact will change in the foreseeable future. However, democracy is not only about formalities. A democracy can only thrive if its leaders and representatives are committed to its basic principles.

It should be pointed out at the outset that understanding of and commitment to the principles of democracy is not what separates the political Right from the political Left. In our case, the most devoted watchdog of democracy in the state’s early years was Menachem Begin, who led the Herut – a right-wing party par excellence. Today, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin from the Likud is trying to perform the same role, and is supported in his endeavors not only by left-wing MKs, but by Likud ministers Bennie Begin, Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan.

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At this stage, however, the threats are coming primarily from the Right, even though part of Rivlin’s battle is directed against the Finance Ministry on issues that have nothing to do with the Right/Left divide.

Another threat to democracy, which has not yet been seriously addressed, comes from certain fanatic religious circles that actively refuse to accept the supremacy of the law over Halacha, to the point of acting rebelliously.

ONE WORRYING sign of the weakness of the commitment to democratic principles among some of our leaders and representatives concerns the recent initiative by several MKs to establish two separate parliamentary committees of inquiry – one to investigate the activities of organizations that “participate in the delegitimization of the IDF,” and the other to investigate the involvement of foreign governments in the financing of local organizations and the purchase of land here.

Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon explained in a document he presented last week to the House Committee for its discussions on the approval of the inquiry committees that legally there is nothing to prevent their establishment, since there are no limitations on the topics that parliamentary committees may deal with. Nevertheless, he said there is a problem regarding the choice of topic in this case, since the proposed committees are to deal with “ideological issues par excellence, and with bodies that are identified with one side only of the political map, which is currently in opposition.”

Yinon added that the proposed committees, unlike all previous parliamentary committees of inquiry, “are to deal with what may be perceived as a narrowing down and curtailment of basic rights in a democratic regime, including the basic rights of freedom of expression, freedom of protest and freedom of political association – rights that are at the heart of any democratic regime.”



Yinon was attacked by those supporting the establishment of the committees. They argued that he had taken a political stand, while his position – supported by Rivlin – merely sought to defend democracy; he would undoubtedly have adopted the same position had the subjects of the proposed inquiry been from the Right.



TO WHAT Yinon wrote I should like to add that among the tasks of a legislature are supervision of the government. Within that framework, the Knesset can pass laws that make active criticism of the IDF, or the receipt of funds from foreign governments illegal. It can also investigate whether the law enforcement authorities have performed their role with regard to those who delegitimize the IDF and the country’s right to defend itself, or whether the Foreign Ministry has done its utmost to prevent foreign governments from intervening in our internal affairs, financially or otherwise.

Investigating persons and bodies suspected of unpatriotic acts, or even treason, is not the task of the legislature, even though there is apparently nothing to prevent the Knesset from doing so legally.

We do not yet know whether the Knesset plenum, after all that has been said, will approve the establishment of the two committees. Hopefully it will not. However, what the Knesset can do on this particular issue is change the provisions of its Rules of Procedure so that the range of subjects parliamentary committees may deal with is clearly defined. What the Knesset cannot do is ensure that all those elected to occupy its seats are committed to the basic rules of democracy.

The writer is a former Knesset employee.

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