Inside Out: The democratic glass house

Anti-democratic legislation by definition jeopardizes the very existence of government by democracy.

Knesset vote 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Knesset vote 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
A handful of Likud and Israel Beiteinu backbenchers enjoy the dubious distinction of being the authors of a series of antidemocratic bills that have swept the current Knesset. Public criticism notwithstanding, all signs indicate that these MKs’ destructive legislative efforts have only been redoubled since the beginning of the winter session of parliament just three weeks ago, producing at least two new deeply troubling bills.
An old expression comes to mind with regard to these lawmakers: “people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”
In the two-and-a-half years since their election, lawmakers including coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin, Ophir Akunis, Danny Danon and Yariv Levin of the Likud, and David Rotem, Faina Kirschenbaum and other MKs from Yisrael Beiteinu, have applied themselves assiduously to advancing a number of anti-democratic bills. It is inconceivable that they should have done so without at the very least the tacit approval of their party leaders, Binyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman.
The most recent example is the bill approved Sunday by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. This bill was drafted putatively to prevent foreign governments from meddling in domestic Israeli politics, which in itself appears to be a legitimate goal. However, the bill was designed in a way that starves only NGOs associated with leftwing causes of funding, while curiously leaving the foreign funding of rightwing NGOs untouched.
Another example is last year’s so-called “Nakba bill,” which allows the state to withhold funds from groups that do not toe the line of the Zionist majority in Israel. Sanctimonious arguments were aired to justify this bill, claiming that its goal was to liberate the state from an untenable obligation to subsidize supposedly anti-Israel activity of the country’s Arab “fifth column” and its treacherous Jewish supporters.
Even if viewed in isolation, that argument indisputably is predicated on accepting the anti-democratic premise that all Israelis have to endorse certain government-approved views about Israel’s past, present and future to make them eligible for state funding.
The spuriousness of the self-defense argument shines through all the more clearly when viewed in broader context of other anti-democratic legislation that has been put forward by this Knesset to quash freedom of speech. In the broader legislative context it is hard to view this bill anything but a blatant effort to silence the defiant voices of political dissent on the far Left and mainly from the Arab minority.
A third example is the new bill that would oblige candidates for the Supreme Court to undergo a qualifying hearing before a select group of politicians. Supporters of the bill compare their proposal to Western-style checks and balances on the court’s power, but this argument is specious.
Currently, the Judges Selection Committee has a carefully-balanced set of representatives from the coalition and the opposition, the Israel Bar Association and the judiciary, which keeps the power of each group in check. The new bill is geared to provide politicians from the governing coalition with the prerogative to disqualify candidates based on their political views.Even prominent government figures, such Ehud Barak and Gidon Sa’ar, reject the comparison to the American system, for example, and contend that the revision is geared to intimidate the judiciary.
THE ABOVE-cited acts of legislation, three out of numerous others, pose a real threat to democracy and, by extension, to all minority groups in Israel.
Democracies are structured to allow for the opinion of the majority to prevail, but they are also are designed protect the rights of minority groups against potential tyranny by the majority. The bills in question were intentionally crafted to undercut precisely this protection against tyranny.
What these lawmakers and their myopic leaders, Netanyahu and Lieberman, fail to realize as they heedlessly exploit their current majority, is that by so doing they are endangering all Israelis, themselves included, and not only their political adversaries on the reviled Left and the non-Zionist Arab sector. As they flex their political muscles and trample underfoot the protection afforded their opponents, they blithely forget that today’s majority is tomorrow’s minority and vice versa.
It is true that the Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and their other coalition partners have a firm majority in the Knesset. As such, it is certainly within their power to outlaw the funding of NGOs they find politically distasteful, to allow for funding to be withheld from anyone who dares to challenge the Zionist narrative.
They currently have the ability to promote bills that are geared to turn the Supreme Court into a “cowed branch of the political majority,” as the Likud’s own Education Minister Gidon Sa’ar pithily described the risk posed by making a Supreme Court appointment contingent upon “passing” a hearing held by politicians.
Indeed, the Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and their partners have a majority. However, none of the parties in that coalition can claim to hold the support of a majority of the population. Each party unto itself is a minority voice in Israel. Moreover, the collective majority they currently enjoy as a coalition government is destined eventually to come to an end, as always happens in a democracy. What will they do when the proverbial shoe is on the other foot?
These shortsighted MKs and their party leaders, intoxicated by the political power afforded them by their majority in the Knesset, ought to be reminded that their hold on power is temporary. They seem to have forgotten that the Likud was swept into power in 1977 following 29 years of uninterrupted Mapai hegemony, proving that a previously unthinkable reversal of political fortunes could come to pass.
Since then, the shifting strokes of the pendulum have become more frequent. Rabin led the Labor movement back into power in 1992, sending the Likud into the opposition. Netanyahu turned around and won a majority in the 1996 elections, only to lose it three years later back to Ehud Barak and the Labor Party. The Likud, which currently is the largest party in the coalition and the second-largest party in the Knesset, received a mere 12 seats in the 2006 elections. Kadima, which received the largest number of seats in the current Knesset, is now trailing in the polls now in third and fourth place.
Sic transit gloria mundi (Thus passes the glory of the world). That applies to everyone.
Anyone foolish enough to exploit their fleeting democratic power to undercut the protection provided the weak members of the current minority ultimately will succeed only in endangering all members of society, themselves included.
Anti-democratic legislation by definition jeopardizes the very existence of government by democracy, which, for all its flaws, is the best system available to all of us. Since at one point or another in the course of this democratic game we all have to play the role of being the minority, none of us should throw stones at the glass walls of democracy that protect those minority rights.
The writer is a veteran Israeli writer and translator.