Opinion

Netanyahu's Real Target Isn't Israel Boycotters. It's Israel's Democracy

Only authoritarians fear freedom of expression – and Israels extreme right are no exception, using Trumpian tools of scapegoating, incitement and lies. But Israeli democracy is not dead yet

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference in Jerusalem, December 6, 2017.
RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS

This week, Israels ultra-right-wing government would like us to be debating the merits of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Theyd be thrilled if we comb through every tweet of every staffer of each of the 20 organizations on the governments recently-released blacklist.

Nothing would make them happier than warring op-eds about who should be turned back at Ben Gurion Airport, and who should get the red-carpet treatment.

If we do that – if the Israeli government succeeds in distracting us with a debate about BDS while freedom of speech is becoming more and more conditional, and Israelis are taking to the streets to protest Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahus corruption – then theyve made friers and suckers of us all.

Paris BDS
THOMAS SAMSON/AFP

I, along with the New Israel Fund, oppose the global BDS movement that most of the blacklisted organizations support. But right now, it doesnt matter what you think of BDS. Because thats not the real issue. We are witnessing the dismantling, piece by piece, of Israeli democracy. Dont be distracted.

The travel ban blacklist released this week is the unsurprising product of a years-long legislative strategy by the extreme right-wing to infect Israeli democracy with authoritarianism by crippling freedom of expression.

The travel ban itself – an effort to police dissenting thoughts and the people who think them, especially Palestinians – and the blacklist are just the latest symptoms.

The larger strategy includes the Boycott Law, passed in 2011, which makes any Israeli who calls for any kind of boycott, including a boycott of settlement products, liable to be sued for damages. (At the time, the Knessets legal advisor, Eyal Yinon, said that the law would so severely injure freedom of expression that he considered it borderline illegal.

It includes the Nakba Law, which allows the government to pull funding from any Arab-Israeli institution that in any way marks the Palestinian narrative of 1948.

And it includes - through legislation, intimidation and smear campaigns - attempts to silence and delegitimize human and civil rights organizations that defend democracy and oppose the occupation.

Alongside its legislative strategy, the current government uses incitement, scapegoating and lies to suppress free speech and weaken Israeli democracy even further. Arabs, government watchdogs, independent media, the judiciary and those who defend democracy and equality, including NIF and our grantees, are explicitly singled out and demonized by government officials, including Prime Minister Netanyahu.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Pensacola, Florida, December 8, 2017.
CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS

Those of us in America recognize this all too well: we have become familiar with Trumpian attempts to solidify power by inciting against minorities, coddling bigots, and even threatening to prosecute political opponents. These tactics are a scourge used by ascendant authoritarian regimes in many corners of the world. They should have no place in Israel.

The government has to rely on a strategy of distraction because its own values are so obviously at odds with Israels founding values. It is overtly xenophobic and even racist, shamelessly corrupt, pandering to the settler lobby and willing to defend the 50-year-old occupation at all costs. It deflects attention and demonizes its political opponents, who value democracy, equality, and human and civil rights, in order to keep Israelis from asking difficult questions about where their leaders are taking them.

The state of freedom of speech and the right to dissent are direct reflections of the health of a democracy. By those measures, Israeli democracy is in critical condition.

But the good news is that theres a cure – and many ways to protect Israels democracy from future threats.

Demonstrators hold a sign reading 'shame' as they protest against corruption in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, Tel Aviv, Israel, December 3, 2017.
Tomer Appelbaum

The first and most urgent is to reject the governments efforts to eviscerate freedom of expression, even – perhaps especially – for those with whom we disagree. We cant allow ourselves to be distracted by thinking this is about whether or not we agree with BDS or the tactics of its supporters. If basic freedoms are threatened, democracy is in danger.

And we cant allow ourselves to be distracted when the government advances the next round of democracy-poisoning legislation, including the proposed Nation-State Bill, which would needlessly declare Israel the nation state solely of the Jewish people, strip Arabic of its status as an official state language, and only serve to antagonize and marginalize Palestinian citizens of Israel.  

Each time the Prime Minister rails against invented threats and designates enemies from within, we have to ask ourselves: What is he hoping we wont notice? A regime buckling under the weight of its own corruption and unsustainable, anti-democratic policies cant keep us distracted forever. 

Daniel Sokatch is CEO of the New Israel Fund.