Anti-democratic? Moi? Why Israel Ignores America's NGO Bill Warning

Israelis and American officials are going through the motions: Israel transgresses, the U.S. expresses concern. And on and on and on we go.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked at a meeting of her Bayit Hayehudi party. Her demand that leftist NGOs need to wear special badges in the Knesset is a first indication of what is to come
Olivier Fitoussi

On Monday, for the umpteenth time, the United States expressed “concern” over the state of Israeli democracy. 

Following her controversial “NGO bill,” that if enacted would require representatives of NGOs that receive funding from foreign governments to wear special badges when visiting the Knesset, Israel’s Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked met with U.S. ambassador Dan Shapiro. He (as U.S. diplomats are wont to do upon meeting their Israeli counterparts) “noted the U.S. government’s concerns on the matter.”

“The Ambassador noted that Israel is a strong and vibrant democracy, which gives substantial voice to all points of view and promotes a thriving, transparent civil society. He reiterated the United States’ view that such a free and functioning civil society is an essential element of a healthy democracy, and that governments must protect free expression and peaceful dissent and create an atmosphere where all voices can be heard,” the U.S. embassy stated after the meeting.

Separately, the U.S. embassy issued a detailed refutation of Shaked’s claims  that the proposed NGO law bears (m)any similarities to the Foreign Agents Registration Act.  FARA "does not create the chilling effect on NGO activities that we are concerned about in reviewing the draft Israeli NGO law,” the statement said.

Shaked and a few other right-wing politicians interpreted the unusually sharp rebuke as foreign intervention in internal Israeli matters. Saying that she now realized “the American administration's interest and concern is sincere,” Shaked added,  "But there is no cause for concern. Israel is a strong democracy and as such there is no need for other nations to intervene in internal legislation.” She reiterated this point at the end of her statement, noting that “it is very strange to me that foreign governments extend their long arms into internal legislation processes.” (Shaked, of course, chose to ignore recent interventions by Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials in internal American politics.)

Indeed, the embassy’s statements were slightly more biting than usual. However, that is all they were. Despite the slight breach of diplomatic protocol, nothing truly out of the ordinary happened here. Israel’s government once again transgressed its declared democratic values, and the U.S. settled for a mild warning, that will most likely not lead to action. Israel, in response, reiterated its stance that it will do whatever it wants. 

It is the same theatre of inaction that has characterized U.S.-Israeli relations in recent years. The sides continue to play the traditional parts ascribed to them, albeit with increased detachment: the administration rebukes Israel, becoming just a wee-bit more critical over time. Israel, in response, performs its usual doe-eyed routine (“Moi? Anti-democratic?”) while barreling full-speed down its path towards an anti-democratic security state. And on and on we go.

We are all completely beside ourselves

As the two-state solution remains deader than a doornail, and as a binational state entrenches itself on the ground, it is becoming painfully clear that the U.S. will not, cannot, stop Israelis and Palestinians from sleepwalking into apartheid.

Late last year, officials in the Obama administration acknowledged that a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians will not happen during the remainder of Obama’s term. Ever since then, U.S. officials have been openly expressing their frustration with Israel.

In a New Yorker interview published shortly after his most recent visit to Israel, Secretary of State John Kerry described Israel as becoming a “unitary state that is an impossible entity to manage.”

In recent weeks, as Israelis and Palestinians spiraled into yet another wave of senseless violence, Kerry’s repeated warnings that the region is headed towards a bloody, chaotic one-state reality have radiated a growing sense of inevitability and powerlessness. With the Palestinian Authority dangerously close to collapse, and Israeli human rights activists routinely harassed and persecuted by quasi-fascist groups, it is hard to shake the feeling that the U.S. is settling into a new role as a mere sideline observer to all this: concerned, yet distant.

Israel and Palestine are markedly absent from Obama’s final State of the Union address, as they were from his most recent address to the UN General Assembly. As the situation continues to deteriorate, it seems the administration has lost interest, and is okay with simply expressing concern over Israel’s actions every now and then.

In the past year alone, the administration has said its either “concerned” or “deeply concerned” on multiple occasions. It was “deeply concerned” when Israel decided to build new housing units in East Jerusalem last July, and lately, when Israel decided to expand the boundaries of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc in the West Bank; the State Department voiced concerns following the escalation of violence in the region in October, and later, over Israel’s potential use of excessive force against Palestinians. After Netanyahu used anti-Arab incitement to win reelection in March, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said: "The United States and this administration is deeply concerned about rhetoric that seeks to marginalize Arab-Israeli citizens.” 

Needless to say, the situation of Israel’s Arab population has not improved since then.

While there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of American concerns, U.S. officials know full well their concerns don’t impress right-wing Israeli politicians, who rightly see “concern” as nothing more than code for American passivity. You can already see the cockiness displayed in Shaked’s response to Shapiro spreading to the rest Israel’s right wing. Move along, Israel’s government is telling its concerned ally, also the world’s greatest superpower: nothing to see here.

In lieu of actual action, the administration has been trying to give the impression of action by making its criticisms of Israel slightly more acidic. These platitudes don’t do much to change Israel’s behavior, but they pay lip service to the idea that someone, someday, should do something to move the situation forward.

In the meantime, the theatre of inaction continues: Israel transgresses, the U.S. is completely beside itself. And on and on and on and on we go.