Netanyahu shattering the myth of Israeli democracy
The Electronic Intifada,
3 December 2011
As protests raged again across the Middle East, Benjamin
Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, offered his assessment
of the Arab uprisings last week. It was, he said, an
"Islamic, anti-western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli,
undemocratic wave," adding that Israel's Arab neighbors
were "moving not forwards, but backwards."
It takes some chutzpah -- or, at least, epic self-delusion
-- for Israel's prime minister to be lecturing the Arab
world on liberalism and democracy at this moment.
In recent weeks, a spate of anti-democratic measures have
won support from Netanyahu's right-wing government,
justified by a new security doctrine: see no evil, hear no
evil and speak no evil of Israel. If the legislative
proposals pass, the Israeli courts, Israel's human rights
groups and media, and the international community will be
transformed into the proverbial three monkeys.
Israel's vigilant human rights community has been the
chief target of this assault. This week Netanyahu's Likud
faction and the Yisrael Beiteinu party of his far-right
foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, proposed a new law
that would snuff out much of the human rights community in
The bill effectively divides nongovernmental organizations
(NGOs) into two kinds: those defined by the right as
pro-Israel and those seen as "political," or anti-Israel.
The favored ones, such as ambulance services and
universities, will continue to be lavishly funded from
foreign sources, chiefly wealthy private Jewish donors
from the United States and Europe.
The "political" ones -- meaning those that criticize
government policies, especially relating to the occupation
-- will be banned from receiving funds from foreign
governments, their main source of income. Donations from
private sources, whether Israeli or foreign, will be
subject to a crippling 45 percent tax.
The grounds for being defined as a "political" NGO are
suitably vague: denying Israel's right to exist or its
Jewish and democratic character; inciting racism;
supporting violence against Israel; supporting politicians
or soldiers being put on trial in international courts; or
backing boycotts of the state.
One human rights group warned that all groups assisting
the UN's 2009 report by Judge Richard Goldstone into war
crimes committed during Israel's attack on Gaza in winter
2008-09 would be vulnerable to such a law. Other
organizations like Breaking the Silence, which publishes
the testimonies of Israeli soldiers who have committed or
witnessed war crimes, will be silenced themselves. And a
Palestinian NGO said it feared that its work demanding
equality for all Israeli citizens, including the fifth of
the population who are Palestinian, and an end to Jewish
privilege would count as denying Israel's Jewish
Media and human rights groups fear for the worst
At the same time Netanyahu wants the Israeli media
emasculated. Last week his government threw its weight
behind a new defamation law that will leave few but
millionaires in a position to criticize politicians and
officials. Netanyahu observed: "It may be called the
Defamation Law, but I call it the 'publication of truth
law.'" The media and human rights groups fear the worst.
This monkey must speak no evil.
Another bill, backed by the justice minister, Yaacov
Neeman, is designed to skew the make-up of a panel
selecting judges for Israel's high court. Several judicial
posts are about to fall vacant, and the government hopes
to stuff the court with appointees who share its
ideological worldview and will not rescind its
anti-democratic legislation, including its latest attack
on the human rights community. Neeman's favored candidate
is a settler who has a history of ruling against human
Senior legislators from Netanyahu's party are pushing
another bill that would make it nearly impossible for
human rights organizations to petition the high court
against government actions.
The judicial monkey should see no evil.
At one level, these and a host of other measures --
including increasing government intimidation of the
Israeli media and academia, a crackdown on whistle-blowers
and the recently passed boycott law, which exposes critics
of the settlements to expensive court actions for damages
-- are designed to strengthen the occupation by disarming
its critics inside Israel.
But there is another, even more valued goal: making sure
that in the future the plentiful horror stories from the
occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip -- monitored by human
rights organizations, reported by the media and heard in
the courts -- never reach the ears of the international
The third monkey is supposed to hear no evil.
The crackdown is justified in the Israeli right's view on
the grounds that criticism of the occupation represents
not domestic concerns but unwelcome foreign interference
in Israel's affairs. The promotion of human rights --
whether in Israel, the occupied territories or the Arab
world -- is considered by Netanyahu and his allies as
inherently un-Israeli and anti-Israeli.
No restrictions on right-wing "foreign meddling"
The hypocrisy is hard to stomach. Israel has long claimed
special dispensation to interfere in the affairs of both
the European Union and the United States. Jewish Agency
staff proselytize among European and American Jews to
persuade them to emigrate to Israel. Uniquely, Israel's
security agencies are given free rein at airports around
the world to harass and invade the privacy of non-Jews
flying to Tel Aviv. And Israel's political proxies abroad
-- sophisticated lobby groups like AIPAC in the US -- act as
foreign agents while not registering as such.
Of course, Israel's qualms against foreign meddling are
selective. No restrictions are planned for right-wing Jews
from abroad, such as US casino magnate Irving Moskowitz,
who have pumped enormous sums into propping up illegal
Jewish settlements built on Palestinian land.
There is a faulty logic too to Israel's argument. As human
rights activists point out, the areas where they do most
of their work are located not in Israel but in the West
Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel is occupying in
violation of international law.
Privately, European embassies have been trying to drive
home this point. The EU gives Israel preferential trading
status, worth billions of dollars annually to the Israeli
economy, on condition that it respects human rights in the
occupied territories. Europe argues it is, therefore,
entitled to fund the monitoring of Israel's treatment of
the Palestinians. More's the pity that Europe fails to act
on the information it receives.
Given the right's strengthening hand, it can be expected
to devise ever more creative ways to silence the human
rights community and Israeli media and emasculate the
courts as way to end the bad press.
Netanyahu's goal of turning the clock back decades
Israelis are obsessed with their country's image abroad
and what they regard as a "delegitimization" campaign that
threatens not only the occupation's continuation but also
Israel's long-term survival as an ethnic state. The
leadership has been incensed by regular surveys of global
opinion showing Israel ranked among the most unpopular
countries in the world.
The Palestinians' recent decision to turn to the
international community for recognition of statehood has
only amplified such grievances.
Israel has no intention of altering its policies, or of
pursuing peace. Rather, Netanyahu's government has been
oscillating between a desperate desire to pass yet more
anti-democratic legislation to stifle criticism and a
modicum of restraint motivated by fear of the
A cabinet debate last month on legislation against human
rights groups focused barely at all on the proposal's
merits. Instead the head of the National Security Council,
Yaakov Amidror, was called before ministers to explain
whether Israel stood to lose more from passing such bills
or from allowing human rights groups to carry on
monitoring the occupation.
Deluded as it may seem, Netanyahu's ultimate goal is to
turn the clock back forty years, to a "golden age" when
foreign correspondents and western governments could
refer, without blushing, to the occupation of the
Palestinians as "benign."
Donald Neff, Jerusalem correspondent for Time magazine in
the 1970s, admitted years later that his and his
colleagues' performance was so feeble at the time in large
part because there was little critical information
available on the occupation. When he witnessed first-hand
what was taking place, his editors in the US refused to
believe him and he was eventually moved on.
Now, however, the genie is out the bottle. The
international community understands full well -- thanks to
human rights activists -- both that the occupation is
brutal and that Israel has been peace-making in bad faith.
If Israel continues on its current course, another myth
long accepted by western countries -- that Israel is "the
only democracy in the Middle East" -- may finally be
Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for
Journalism. His latest books are "Israel and the Clash of
Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the
Middle East" (Pluto Press) and "Disappearing Palestine:
Israel's Experiments in Human Despair" (Zed Books). His
website is www.jkcook.net.
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