The Assault on Israel's Vibrant Democracy

There are many reasons why the recent spate of domestic legislation in Israel -- regarding non-governmental organizations, the media, Israel as a Jewish State, the Supreme Court -- is disturbing.
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There are many reasons why the recent spate of domestic legislation in Israel -- regarding non-governmental organizations, the media, Israel as a Jewish State, the Supreme Court -- is disturbing.

In many of these cases, the Knesset is addressing real and challenging problems. But it is doing so in the wrong way.

The truth is that a number of foreign governments and non-governmental organizations have been funding activities in Israel that go beyond representing a diversity of viewpoints about Israel's political and security situation.

The truth is that it is important that the Palestinians and the Arab world finally acknowledge Israel's right to exist as the Jewish State.

The truth is that there is a perception that the media seems to be tilted to the left in Israel, as in so many other countries.

The truth is the Supreme Court may have rushed too hastily to assert a stronger position in Israel's political system, frightening many on the right.

All of these matters are legitimate subjects for public debate.

When, however, laws are passed that stifle free expression, seek to undermine the independence of the judiciary and, in the name of defending a Jewish state, seek to undermine the rights of Arabs and other minorities, then the very democratic character of the state is being eroded.

This is bad for Israel internally. The modern state of Israel was founded on the principles of democracy and pluralism. Moreover, on a practical level, democracy has been the glue holding together a disparate community.

And it will hurt Israel externally, particularly at a time when delegitimization campaigns are rampant and when so much of the international community sees Israel as blocking peace efforts. Israeli democracy and the perception of Israel as defending democratic values are crucial to Israel's good name.

Most significantly, the efforts by some on the right to paint these laws as consistent with Likud ideology are egregiously off the mark. Indeed, those who initiate these laws are doing great damage to the nationalist cause they espouse.

A little history is in order. When Ze'ev Jabotinsky, and then Menachem Begin created and built Revisionist Zionism, they were often accused by the Zionist establishment as not only being extreme nationalists but of being anti-democratic. Some suggested they were Zionist "fascists" in the making. Indeed, when Begin was elected prime minister in 1977, there were those on the left who implied that Israeli democracy was at risk.

Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. The very fact that Likud came to power after 30 years of Labor's dominance of the Israeli political system was a sign of Israel's democracy strengthening and maturing. Whatever one thought about their broader nationalist views, and clearly, the arguments about territory continue to this day, the charge that the Revisionists, and later the Likud leadership, were anti-democratic was inaccurate and insidious. Prime Minister Begin, consistent with the views of his mentor Jabotinsky, did everything to strengthen democratic values, free speech, free courts and free expression.

For decades, Likud, representing the mainstream right, has been a living example that nationalism and democracy can co-exist in a healthy and harmonious relationship. Indeed, as strong defenders of Israel's democratic values, the right was more able to make its case for nationalist foreign policies. Whether one agreed with them or not, the case could not be made that they were undermining democracy at home at the same time. While the left may have claimed that nationalism and anti-democracy were linked, they had no basis for that assertion.

Now the introduction of a series of laws that in their totality have the feel of restricting democratic values is making the early politicized criticisms of the left seem relevant.

Much of the legislation is being introduced by Yisrael Beiteinu, but the fact is that these bills could not progress without the approval, tacit or otherwise, of Likud. In doing so, they are potentially tainting legitimate expressions of hawkish security policies.

There are so many reasons why this movement should be resisted. Likud members and cabinet ministers Benny Begin and Dan Meridor, and at times opposition leader Tzipi Livni -- heirs to the Revisionist tradition -- have made it clear that these laws violate the democratic principles that underlay Revisionism.

It is clear that people on the left will oppose such legislation. What really ought to happen, however, is that more leaders from Israel rightist camps should be standing up against efforts to undermine Israel's judicial, press and speech freedoms. They must assert that not only is democracy an essential component of Israel's very being and a potent constructive force throughout Israel's history, but that the defense of Israel's vibrant democratic traditions are a core value for those on the political right.

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