Three minutes of Q&A at the end of a closed lecture delivered by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Saturday at the Saban Forum in Washington exposed deepening gaps between the governments of Israel and Washington.
If up to now differences between Washington and Jerusalem centered on the peace process or the future of the settlements, it appears that the U.S. government is now worried about whether democratic values are shared by the two states.
A source who was present at Clinton's lecture says that the Secretary of State spoke at length about the Iranian nuclear program, and the need to advance negotiations with the Palestinians. In these connections, the source said, Clinton said little new. The new twist came when she responded to questions. "What does Israel need to do in order to help the U.S. help it?" one of the participants queried.
Clinton, whose long-standing commitment to Israel is not in question, sighed, and launched into a three-minute monologue that related to domestic matters in Israel. The secretary of state, who is considered one of the most popular politicians in the U.S., explained that she is astonished by the legislative initiatives in favor of restricting left-wing NGOs, as well as by the exclusion of women from public spaces and other phenomena.
Clinton claimed that she really cannot understand what is going on in Israel. She said that it's hard for her to grasp how proposals to restrict non-governmental organizations can find their way to the Knesset. In a period when the U.S. is working hard with countries around the world to strengthen their civil sector organizations and structures, Israel appears to be moving in the opposite direction, she suggested. Clinton related that she had read a day before in The Washington Post an article by Ruth Marcus, called "In Israel, Women's Rights Come Under Siege," which detailed examples of the exclusion or boycotting of women, including incidents where IDF religious soldiers have boycotted events in which women sang, and the segregation of women on some bus routes, in contravention of Supreme Court decisions.
The secretary of state related that when she read this report she was reminded of Rosa Parks, the African-American activist who in 1955 refused to yield her seat on a bus to a white man. The boycott of women singing at IDF events reminds her of extremist regimes.
That seems more suited to Iran than Israel, Clinton opined. She said that she is at a loss to understand how such processes can occur in Israel. She told her listeners that Israel has little idea how badly such dynamics appear around the world. If you've ever wondered how discussions between herself and Netanyahu appear - that's what these images look like, Clinton quipped.
The Prime Minister's Office declined to respond to Clinton's remarks, but some Israeli ministers rejected the criticism she reportedly voiced. Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said that the criticism is "completely exaggerated."
Also, Minister Gilad Erdan said that "it would be better were elected officials to concentrate on affairs in their own countries."
Before the weekly cabinet meeting, Steinitz said that "the exclusion and segregation of women is something totally unacceptable, and it needs to be stopped, but to cite this as a threat to Israel's democracy is a big leap."
Interior Minister Eli Yishai said that Israel's Knesset makes laws after thoroughly reviewing issues. "The State of Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East," he declared. "Everything done here happens within the framework of the law, and I am not worried about that."
About a week and a half before her lecture at the Saban Forum, Clinton asked U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro to deliver a message saying that the U.S. administration is extremely concerned about legislation restricting leftist NGOs. Shapiro told Netanyahu's aides that the draft bill is much more extreme than laws in the U.S. and other Western democracies regarding the activities of NGOs. "I have been instructed by Washington to clarify our position on this issue," Shapiro told Netanyahu's National Security Adviser Ya'akov Amidror, and Netanyahu's political adviser Ron Dermer.
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