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