Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday characterized the popular revolution in Tunisia as an example of "instability in our region." While Western leaders (and the Arab League!) praise the great achievement of the freedom struggle and the ousting of a tyrannical despot, Netanyahu does not see achievement in civil protest. He only wants "stability to return," with or without freedom.
Perhaps he actually does see, and that is why he didn't say anything. Dr. Daniel Zisenwine is a research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, of Tel Aviv University, specializing in North Africa. He explained in an interview that it was not the political opposition that brought down President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali: "They are only fragments of parties, in a very weak position ... and mainly busy fighting among themselves." Sound familiar? The strong elements in Tunisia, Zisenwine said, are the trade unions and nongovernmental organizations, which "suddenly woke up and could awaken public life in the country a little more." Maybe that's why Netanyahu is backing up Lieberman's remarks and actions with regard to human rights organizations. He is "afraiiid," as Netanyahu once famously said about the left.
Israeli civil society organizations have amassed considerable power over the years; not only the so-called leftist organizations, but ones dealing with issues like poverty, workers' rights and violence against women and children. All of them were created in order to fill the gaps left by the state, which for its part was all too happy to continue walking away from problems that someone else was there to take on. The neglect is so great that Israel's third sector - NGOs, charities and volunteer organizations - is among the biggest in the world. As such, it has quite a bit of power.
Now comes the backlash. The Knesset and the cabinet have suddenly discovered the power these groups have, and they want it back. For now the war is against "political" groups, but we can anticipate efforts to take control of charities, because they too are political. They too are involved in human rights, even if their human beings are women, teens, Ethiopians or the poor.
But in this war the cabinet and the Knesset have chosen to ignore the reasons these groups became powerful. They can make false claims about foreign funding, but that is not the source of their power. The source of their power is the vacuum, the criminal policies of Israel's governments over the last 40 years. The source of their power is a government that is evading its duties to care for all of its citizens and to end the occupation, and a Knesset that supports the government instead of putting it in its place. That is the reason this war will not help the government and the Knesset. The work of these groups stems from deep commitment and the tangible, existential needs they meet. And because the Israeli government is increasingly abandoning its citizens, these organizations are not about to disappear.
Unfortunately, these organizations also serve as a pressure valve. As Prof. Yagil Levy explained ("Making the occupation more convenient," Haaretz, January 11, 2011) the byproduct of the activities of "leftist groups" is the preservation of the occupation. In the same way, organizations such as Latet, Elem and Bizchut allow the state to continue shirking its responsibility to its citizens. According to Zisenwine, behind the revolution in Tunisia is "a well-educated, pro-Western population, combined with a blend of economic distress, openly recognized corruption, that in any case was known, the president's iron fist and more. Had Ben Ali consulted me in advance I would have told him to ease up a little, to give a little more freedom to the media and the Internet," Zisenwine said.
If only Netanyahu's and Lieberman's bad intentions of restricting personal freedom and civil rights in Israel would lead to the opposite result. Perhaps, if they don't permit the pressure to escape, the much-needed revolution will finally happen here.
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