The Right-wing Assault on Israeli Democracy

A plan to outlaw Breaking the Silence is part of a campaign that aims to erase the liberal democracy that Israel once aspired to be

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Israel, October 9, 2017.
Yonatan Sindel

The reported plan to declare the anti-occupation NGO Breaking the Silence illegal is an indication of Israel’s heavy-handed government and of its weakened democracy. It would be considered breaking news were it not for the fact that it is actually more of the same. The blacklisting of Breaking the Silence, which would surely serve as a gateway to banning more dissent, is part of the overall right-wing assault on the liberal democracy that Israel once aspired to be. Like the (apparently false) claim that a frog will tolerate water being heated up until it’s boiled to death, Israeli public opinion, including the part that was supposed to offer resistance, has adapted to the dismantlement in stages of the country’s democracy. If and when the public wakes up, it might very well be too late.

The onslaught is being executed on many fronts. It is a calculated and integrated campaign. To allow the government to enact anti-democratic laws as it sees fit, it must first revoke the authority of the High Court of Justice to nullify Knesset legislation. To diminish the stature of the court, the justice minister tries to clip its wings through legislation while her fellow coalition members delegitimize the High Court’s decisions and makeup. Without the threat of High Court nullification, right-wing lawmakers can start dreaming about remaking Israeli democracy into the Jewish ethnocracy they desire. To justify the required curtailment of equality and civil rights, Israeli Arabs are portrayed as a Fifth Column, opponents of the occupation become terrorist collaborators and demonstrators for the rule of law are dubbed anarchists and harassers. All the while, the government’s education commissar tries to edit academic freedom to make it conform to government policy and its culture czar threatens the livelihood of artists who challenge dogma and buck right-wing convention.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to save himself from what increasingly look like likely indictments only add fuel to the fire already consuming Israeli democracy. A frantic and haunted prime minister waging a personal vendetta against the media and the legal system for his own survival is a crucial element in the anti-democratic revolution. So the coalition stays silent when Netanyahu attacks the police just as they will look the other way when he will try to intimidate his potential Justice Ministry prosecutors, not to mention the ecstasy that engulfs right wingers whenever Netanyahu tries to torment the media. He launches bitter personal attacks on journalists, like Donald Trump on steroids, opens and closes public broadcasting stations, like Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, enforces regulations or relaxes the rules to send a message to reporters – but mainly to those who pay their salaries – that investigative exposés and biting criticism might not be the shortest avenue to fame and fortune.

The breaking and smashing frenzy, which is slated to peak in the Knesset’s upcoming winter session, is shared by cynical politicians and true fanatics. The former are looking for headlines that will grab their incited voters but the latter represent a comprehensive world view that derides Western and liberal values and seeks to replace them with an authoritarian regime in which Jews reign supreme. They want to discriminate between Jews and Arabs without knee-jerk liberals getting in their way, to grab Palestinian land while the High Court cowers in the corner, and to continue managing the occupation in darkness, without the rays of disinfecting sunlight occasionally shed by NGOs such as Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem.

This aggressive campaign is fed by the right wing’s perpetual self-victimization, orchestrated and conducted by Netanyahu himself, and by the arrogance of Likud politicians – and those from the national-religious Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) Party even more so – who show no compunction about undermining the values that made Israel what it is today. Maybe their amok is a function of an urge to erase the last remnants of the Israel in whose creation and consolidation their political movements played only a minor role. After the mission is accomplished, the internal destroyers and demolishers of the Zionist revolution that created the state can continue pretending that they are its children and successors.