Pro­posed right-wing bills ‘at­tack on Is­rael’s demo­cratic na­ture’

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - ISSUES - AL­LYN FISHER-ILAN

LEG­IS­LA­TION pro­moted by rightwing law­mak­ers in Is­rael is rais­ing con­cern demo­cratic val­ues are un­der threat in a coun­try that has long billed it­self the only democ­racy in the Mid­dle East.

One bill could po­ten­tially paral­yse dovish Is­raeli ad­vo­cacy groups by im­pos­ing sharp lim­its on fund­ing they re­ceive from for­eign gov­ern­ments, while oth­ers could deal a blow to the in­de­pen­dence of the supreme court, an in­sti­tu­tion seen in Is­rael as a watch­dog over civil rights.

Noth­ing has been passed into law and Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, un­der in­ter­na­tional pres­sure to quash some of the mea­sures pro­posed by mem­bers of his Likud party, has moved to stall one of the more con­tro­ver­sial bills.

But crit­ics say dam­age has al­ready been done, point­ing at three other laws passed in the past year widely seen as anti- Arab and at­tempts to quash dis­sent.

One of these laws al­ready on the books would pe­nalise Arab cit­i­zens for teach­ing about Is­rael’s birth in 1948 as a nakba, or catas­tro­phe, al­low courts to re­voke ci­ti­zen­ship of those charged with “ter­ror­ism” and ban calls to boy­cott Is­rael or any of its set­tle­ments in oc­cu­pied ter­ri­tory.

“Any­one who may have fallen into a coma dur­ing the pe­riod of Mc­carthy­ism in the US might find him­self quite com­fort­able these days in Is­rael,” said Reu­ven Hazan, po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at Jerusalem’s He­brew Univer­sity. He was re­fer­ring to one of the worst eras for po­lit­i­cal free­doms in Amer­ica sparked by the hunt for Com­mu­nist sym­pa­this­ers led by Se­na­tor Joseph Mc­carthy.

“This is an at­tack on the demo­cratic na­ture of the state.”

Back­ers of the lat­est leg­isla­tive ini­tia­tives, which seek to se­verely re­strict fund­ing for non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions (NGOS), say the money re­ceived largely from abroad per­mits for­eign in­ter­fer­ence in in­ter­nal af­fairs.

A sep­a­rate bill, call­ing for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of fund­ing for NGOS, passed a sep­a­rate vote in par­lia­ment.

Crit­ics de­nounce these bills as bids to mute left-wing groups and hu­man-rights or­gan­i­sa­tions that doc- ument pol­icy to­wards Pales­tini­ans.

Af­ter com­plaints from US and Euro­pean diplo­mats, Ne­tanyahu last month ap­peared to bury the leg­is­la­tion by putting off fur­ther cabi­net dis­cus­sion.

Yet he has hinted at sup­port for a pro­posal to bar Mus­lim cler­ics from pub­licly sum­mon­ing the faith­ful to prayer over loud­speak­ers, which some Is­raelis com­plain are too noisy.

Ne­tanyahu told fel­low min­is­ters be­hind closed doors some Western na­tions had noise-con­trol reg­u­la­tions af­fect­ing mosques and “there’s no need to be more lib­eral than Europe”, an of­fi­cial said.

Crit­i­cism of these mea­sures has come from as high up as the govern­ment’s at­tor­ney-gen­eral and Pres­i­dent Shi­mon Peres, a No­bel Peace lau­re­ate for his role in a 1993 deal with the Pales­tini­ans.

Peres said he was “per­son­ally ashamed” at the leg­is­la­tion aimed against NGOS and Arab cit­i­zens.

The fund­ing mea­sure would mainly af­fect leftist groups who re­ceive most of their money from abroad. Many right- wing Is­raeli or­gan­i­sa­tions are funded lo­cally or by pri­vate donors abroad.

“For­eign gov­ern­ments in­ter­fere in our po­lit­i­cal dis­course by con­tribut­ing huge sums of money gen­er­ally to one side of the po­lit­i­cal map, the left side,” said Likud law­maker Ofir Aku­nis.

Danny Danon, a se­nior Likud law­maker and spon­sor of the bills in ques­tion, is con­fi­dent they will pass.

But even some of Is­rael’s most ar­dent, long-time con­ser­va­tive sup­port­ers have voiced dis­may.

Abra­ham Fox­man, head of the Us-based Anti-defama­tion League, called the bills “an as­sault on ba­sic demo­cratic val­ues”.

Some an­a­lysts dis­miss the pro­pos­als as at­tempts by Likud leg­is­la­tors to bol­ster their stand­ing in the right-wing party as it pre­pares for in­ter­nal elec­tions next month that could be a har­bin­ger of an early national elec­tion, due in 2013.

While the leg­is­la­tion aimed against NGOS has stirred the most crit­i­cism abroad, a sep­a­rate list of pro­pos­als re­gard­ing the op­er­a­tions of Is­rael’s supreme court has raised con­cern at home.

Some of the pro­pos­als seek to im­pose lim­its for the first time on el­i­gi­bil­ity to pe­ti­tion the bench, as well as to re­duce the ten­ure pe­riod for its top judge and give law­mak­ers a role in vet­ting ju­di­cial can­di­dates.

An­other would re­quire all jus­tices to have served in the Is­raeli mil­i­tary, ef­fec­tively bar­ring the coun­try’s Arab cit­i­zens from the bench.

Is­raeli jus­tices are picked by a com­mit­tee of ju­di­cial peers.

Is­rael does not have a con­sti­tu­tion and the high court is of­ten seen as the ul­ti­mate de­fender of civil rights, its in­de­pen­dence sacro­sanct in a highly politi­cised so­ci­ety.

Chief Jus­tice Dorit Beinisch pub­licly de­nounced in­ter­fer­ence with the ju­di­ciary as a “dele­git­imi­sa­tion cam­paign” that had “reached the point of in­cite­ment” against the supreme court. – Reuters

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