Israel’s McCarthy Coalition Is on a Dangerous Power Trip

The slew of anti-democratic laws introduced by the current Knesset constitutes one of the darkest chapters in Israeli history.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

The flood of anti-democratic laws that were proposed, and partially implemented, by the current Knesset, elected in February 2009, constitute one of the darkest chapters in Israeli history. The opening salvo was provided by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party with its Nakba law, that forbids the public commemoration of the expulsion of approximately 750,000 Palestinians during the 1948 war.

Since then, a growing number of attempts were made to curtail freedom of expression and to make life for human rights groups more difficult. The latest instance is the boycott law that is passed this Monday by the Knesset, even though its legal advisor believes it to be a problematic infringement on freedom of speech.

Members of the Knesset voting on a bill, July 11, 2011Credit: Michal Fattal

The law, as Knesset Member Nitzan Horowitz from the leftist Meretz Party said, is outrageous, shameful and an embarrassment to Israel’s democracy.

What stands behind this frenzy of attempts to shut down criticism? The answer, I believe, is fear, stupidity, confusion - and now also a power-trip.

The result of Netanyahu’s and Lieberman’s systematic fanning of Israelis' existential fears is tangible: polls show that Israelis are deeply pessimistic about peace; they largely do not trust Palestinians, and in the younger generation belief in democratic values is being eroded.

But this pessimism and siege-mentality is not only to be found in ordinary Israeli voters, but also in the political class. After talking to a number of right-wing politicians, I am unfavorably impressed by their total lack of understanding of the international scene. They have profound misconceptions about the Free World’s attitude towards Israel, and very little real understanding of the paradigm shift towards human rights as the core language of international discourse. They buy into Netanyahu’s adage that Israel’s existence is being delegitimized, rather than realizing that Israel’s settlement policy is unacceptable politically and morally to the whole world.

Out of their utter confusion between international criticism of Israeli policies and existential danger for Israel, the right-wing coalition members look for a scapegoat to be blamed for Israel’s unprecedented isolation. The Israeli left and Human Rights organizations are an easy target. Instead of understanding that Israel’s settlement policy is a genuine catastrophe, they claim that NGOs provide the international community with ammunition for criticizing Israel, and are trying to silence them.

Confusion, ideology and a growing intoxication by the coalition’s unchecked power create the explosive mix that is drawing Knesset members into the maelstrom of ever more anti-democratic measures, of which the boycott law is the latest, but by no means last installment. The passing of the boycott law is giving the right-wing MKs a sense of unbridled supremacy: Yisrael Beitenu and Likud MK Danny Danon are already pushing for a committee to investigate what they call “leftist” organizations and NGOs.

They are working all their might to turn Israel into an illiberal democracy. They are turning into a classic case of what Alexandre de Tocqueville, one of the great observers of democracy, called “the tyranny of the majority”, using their clout without any restraint.

Drunk with power, they do not listen to the Knesset’s legal advisor; they will not listen to American Jewry, including the recently right-leaning ADL, as well as the US State Department who are warning them that they have crossed the line of what is democratically acceptable, and harmed freedom of expression grievously.

The next step is under way: The Supreme Court has been a thorn to Israel’s right for a long time, because it tries to uphold universal human rights. The coalition is now trying to break one of pillars of democracy, the separation of powers, and to undermine the Supreme Court’s ability to function as a democratic balance to the Knesset’s power.

A new Likud initiative proposes that the Knesset should be able to veto candidates for the Supreme Court. The new system would “allow the committee to introduce to the court a different state of mind and allow them to influence the legal system”. In simple words: they want both to intimidate the Supreme Court, and gain control over its judicial philosophy, to bring it in line with their chauvinistic ideology. Once this happens, Netanyahu’s proud statements that Israel is the only liberal democracy in the Middle East will no longer be true.

A final word on Netanyahu and Barak: Both of them are sufficiently ashamed of their coalition’s actions, in order not to show up for the vote on the boycott law. If they think that this absolves them from responsibility, they are dreadfully wrong. History will judge their cowardice harshly: their legacy will be to have presided over Israel’s descent into rabid McCarthyism.



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