Once Upon a Time, When Israel Was a Democracy

By Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

JERUSALEM, Jul 25, 2010 (IPS) – Once upon a time, Israel for all its shortcomings, was regarded by much of the world as a true and vibrant democracy. Israelis themselves were never shy of parading their country as “the only democracy in the Middle East.”

With Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians becoming ever more a fixture soiling Israeli democracy, for some time the world has grown less and less sure of the sureness of Israel’s democratic character.

Left-wing and liberal-minded Israelis, likewise.

What has sparked this new bout of self-doubt about creeping anti- democratic trends are three laws on the verge of being promulgated in the Knesset, hitherto a bastion of Israel’s democracy.

The right-wing Netanyahu government is soon to present the Knesset a new immigration law. As envisaged, the law would demand of the potential citizen a substantive new ideological commitment.

Until now every new citizen has been required to “swear loyalty to the State of Israel.” The new law would require them to “swear loyalty to a Jewish and democratic state.”

“The amended wording seems to be an attempt to light a fuse under Israeli society,” said the liberal Haaretz in an editorial. “Like a number of recently passed measures, this smacks of an attempt to undermine the citizenship of Israeli Arabs, to bring ties between the State and its Arab citizens to the point of violent confrontation.”

A spokesman for Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, protesting the wording of the loyalty declaration, told IPS, “Such a declaration is very grave since it would require all non-Jews to identify with Zionism, and to state their loyalty to both the political ideology of Zionism and to Judaism.”

A second bill, introduced at the end of June by 25 lawmakers, has as its aim the outlawing of any Israeli civil society organisation which “provides information to foreign entities, or is involved in legal proceedings abroad against senior Israeli government officials or Israeli army officers, for war crimes.”

Ishai Menuchin, the executive director of the Public Committee against Torture in Israel, calls this “an assault on democracy”.

“If adopted, the bill would legitimise the suppression of information regarding the commission of such crimes,” he points out. “This legislation has serious implications with respect to international law, the rule of law and Israel’s accountability for international crimes.

“Democracy is far more than majority rule,” adds Menuchin. “For Israel to be truly democratic, civil society organisations are needed to challenge the government and legislature through the media and courts, and in public protests.”

The third bill is potentially even more damaging to Israeli democracy; it targets any citizen who wishes to transform dissent against undemocratic policies into tangible political action.

Passed at a preliminary reading Wednesday, the bill would punish any Israeli calling for a boycott of any Israeli individual or institution, whether in Israel or in the occupied territories. The fine would be 30,000 shekels (some 8,000 dollars).

David Landau, formerly editor-in-chief of Haaretz, called forthrightly for just such a boycott: “I call on parliaments throughout the democratic world, and inter-parliamentary associations, to boycott Israel’s parliament, once the pride of the Jewish people, until it buries the bill and recovers its democratic heritage.”

Landau wrote: “I want to earn a footnote in Jewish history — he tried to stand against the wave of fascism that engulfed the Zionist project. I’m ready to pay for that.”

But for many mainstream Israelis, the anti-boycott law is legitimate. They are troubled by repeated international calls for a boycott of Israeli products from the settlements in the occupied territories, or against universities, especially those which are located on or have close ties with the settler community in the occupied West Bank.

Many see the proposed legislation as legitimate, either preventive, or as an effective tit-for-tat measure.

But for Landau this proposed law is not just a reaction to Israel’s sagging relations with the world. His call for a boycott of the Knesset stems, he says, from “a desperate situation.”

“Our democracy is in real danger,” he told IPS. “And, a call to boycott the Knesset might just puncture that most smug and pernicious piece of propaganda that Israel is ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’.”

In the Knesset last week, there was a heated debate over another law, one that was tailor-made against Arab Israeli legislator Hanan Zo’abi to punish her for participating in the controversial Turkish-organised peace flotilla that had been designed to break the siege of Gaza. Zo’abi was stripped of some of her privileges as a lawmaker.

During the debate, a member of Knesset who is close to the prime minister, suggested that Israel was a democracy for Jews only: “Don’t worry, we’ll deal with your presence in the Knesset later,” was the vitriolic outburst launched by Ofir Akunis against Arab legislator Ahmad Tibi who was strongly protesting the law against Zo’abi.

Tibi retains his status and rights as an elected representative in the Knesset – – for now.

But, as Landau notes, “four million Palestinians living under Israeli occupation have no political rights at all. Plainly, as was predicted decades ago by the fast-diminishing Israeli peace camp, it is the occupation that is eroding democracy inside Israel itself.”

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