A few days ago, the Knesset approved a bill that threatens Israeli democracy.
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No, it wasn't the amendment that prevents state-employed journalists from expressing “personal opinions” on radio or television (that one will reportedly be repealed by Benjamin Netanyahu), or the bill allowing the state to sentence Palestinian stone-throwers to 10 years in prison without even proving intent to harm, both of which passed in recent weeks. Alas, anti-democratic legislation has become such a common occurrence in Israel these days that it’s hard to keep track.
The latest bill, though, is no doubt the most draconian of them all: a sweeping counterterrorism act that radically expands the government’s powers and the definition of what constitutes terrorism.
Given the flurry of anti-democratic initiatives, though, it barely registered in the media or in the public.
What also failed to register was that this last piece of wildly authoritarian, absurd legislation was endorsed by the sad spectacle that is the Israeli left.
The government-sponsored anti-terror bill that passed its first of three readings into law last week, after five years of postponements and during a special recess session of the Knesset, passed by 45:14. Zionist Union, the purported leader of opposition, voted for the bill and even enforced party discipline, despite serious objections from a few Labor MKs.
To understand just how much this represents a betrayal of everything Zionist Union claimed to stand for just a few months ago, when it tried to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu, it’s worth seeing what the new terror bill includes, and what it means.
The new bill incorporates all existing anti-terrorism laws into a single act, significantly changing some, and significantly strengthening the state’s ability to oppress anything defined as “terrorism” - which, under the bill’s definition, is so farcically wide it includes such actions as wearing certain t-shirts.
Those who publicly express “praise, support or sympathy” for a terrorist organization could get three years. A Facebook post would suffice to warrant serious hard time.
Of course, since this bill also empowers the minister of defense minister to declare any entity a terrorist organization, without any due process, almost any body organization that might be seen as a threat to those in power - civic or military, the bill makes no distinction -can be dubbed a “terrorist organization”, and the people supporting it (or god forbid, wearing its t-shirts) instant terror-supporters.
The bill also significantly broadens the definition of terror-abettors, to include those guilty of “negligently abetting” terrorist acts. In a clause that violates basic tenets of criminal law, people who provide goods or services to people involved in terrorism could be convicted of supporting terrorism, albeit unwittingly. The maximum penalty for aiding terror is equated under the new law to that for actual terrorist acts - 30 years.
The bill also significantly increases the state’s ability to use confidential information to convict suspects, and to withhold this confidential information from the suspects themselves. For the first time, it legalizes administrative detentions, finally doing away with the British emergency measures on which Israel based its controversial policy so far, and making it easier than ever to put Israelis and others in prison without trial.
“Terrorist acts” are broadened to include vandalizing “national symbols”, like Israeli flags.
Meretz Chairwoman Zehava Galon, who did oppose the bill, defined some of its clauses as “totalitarian”. Indeed, it’s hard not to see this as the embodiment of the “Shin-Bet state” Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz prophesied about.
Yet the bill won a raving endorsement by Israel’s biggest center-left party. And why not? The bill is currently sponsored by justice minister and right-wing firebrand Ayelet Shaked – but it began as the brainchild of Tzipi Livni- until recently, the great white hope of the Zionist left.
Labor on a right-wing tear
Six months ago, during the elections, the Zionist Union presented itself as the antithesis to Netanyahu’s anti-democratic penchants, a staunch opposition against madness, a political party that represents sanity and tolerance in the face of the right wing’s ultra-nationalist, religious zeal.
But by supporting the terror bill, the single biggest party of the Israeli Zionist left has been outed as the accomplice of extremists. Instead of fighting for democracy, it has been exposed as a full-fledged member of Israel’s anti-democratic camp.
True, the Israeli left, specifically Labor, has been outed before. Hoping to cajole right-wing voters, Labor has veered more and more to the right in recent years. In the weeks before the elections, Herzog ran a right wing-lite campaign that said nothing about ending the occupation of the West Bank, but boasted of “understanding the Arab mentality” and “seeing Arabs through the crosshairs”.
In recent months, following Zionist Union’s defeat, the movement and its MKs have been on a right-wing tear, backing some of the government’s most controversial decisions. When it comes to the major issues these days, from Iran to BDS to censorship, it’s hard to differentiate between prime minister and opposition head.
Anti-democratic behavior, of course, is not new to Labor - it lies deep in its troubled history, as the party that first occupied the Territories, that started the settlements, that first institutionalized the discrimination and second-class-citizen status of Israel’s Arab population. Balad MK Jamal Zahalka acknowledged this historical fact just this week, when he brutally attacked Labor and its MKs for what he called their “racism” and hypocrisy. Joint List leader Ayman Odeh voiced a very similar sentiment in July.
But Zionist Union’s vote for the new terror bill goes beyond the problematic history and charts a new, worrying path for the party, as well as Israeli democracy itself. In its desperate, doomed quest to reclaim power, the Zionist left has given up its leftism. How can there be a chance of meaningful change, if when faced with this kind of oppressive bill, the opposition doesn’t even feign protest, but simply endorses it? Meretz and Hadash alone seem to be the puny, scattered remains of the Israeli left.
From abroad, it is tempting to see Israel’s political system as divided almost-equally by left and right. Throughout the elections, this has been the accepted narrative that appeared in world media. But if Zionist Union’s vote for the terror bill proves anything, it is that the left is not the savior of Israeli democracy - in fact, it seems determined to be its pallbearer.