The U.S. Department of State 2010 Human Rights Report does not mince words when discussing civil society and attempts to suppress it:
"As we have seen in the Middle East and elsewhere, governments cannot suppress civil society indefinitely, and they can never suppress it legitimately."
Strong and appropriate words that when written perhaps did not have Israel specifically in mind, out of the broad spectrum of Middle East countries. But recent legislation approved by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation here force the following perspective for Israel's current predicament: illegitimate suppression in making headway. To the prolonged occupation, now gradually add Israel's civil society.
A paragraph in the above mentioned report discussing Cambodia and Ethopia begins with the following sentence:
"In the last several years, more than 90 governments have sought to pass restrictive laws and regulations, hampering the ability of organizations to register, operate freely, or receive foreign funding."
Restricting foreign funding? That is exactly the technique-of-choice selected by the current government in Israel, in its relentless pursuit to silence Israeli NGOs that criticize some of its policies found to be incompatible with democratic norms and respect for human rights. MK Danny Danon (Likud) politely put it this way:
"[the bill is] a first step on the way to uprooting the lesion that is the extreme Left from Israeli society."
The reader may wonder if Danon, from the ruling Likud party, is a uniquely outspoken representative of the prevailing winds in government in Israel, or just a nationalist extremist willing to change the acceptable ground rules if that's what it takes. Well, he can be both. Doubtful? Prime minister Netanyahu has openly expressed his support for this legislation; he later indicated that the bills will be "frozen", but that is already in doubt, as Yisrael Beitenu, his largest coalition partner, plans to move ahead with one of these bills [doc] regardless.
In a July 2010 speech on the issue, Secretary Clinton spoke of a "group of countries where the walls are closing in on civic organizations". With bills on the "Taxation of public institutions that receive donations from a foreign state entity", clearly drawing on similar legislation passed in Vladimir Putin's Russia, Israel's government seems to be wholeheartedly committed to getting the country admitted to the club of nations the Secretary of State described.
And perhaps not only admitted, but also distanced from some other clubs. In 1995, the EU and Israel signed the "Association Agreement". The agreement, which entered force in 2000 after being ratified by the (then) 15 Member States parliaments, is since the legal framework for EU-Israel relations. The agreement states that the respect for human rights and democratic principles guides the internal and international policy of both Israel and the EU and constitutes an essential and positive element of the Agreement. The economic trade benefits resulting from the Agreement are broad; further, in direct terms, based on the Agreement, the EU makes approximately Euro 150 million in annual grants in Israel. Of these, the EU allocates 1 to 2 percent to human rights NGOs -- the funding that Netanyahu's government has been trying to suppress for over two years now. At least in terms of recklessly endangering Israel's relations internationally, there seems to be no discrimination between the cold shoulder given to international norms backed by both the U.S. and the EU.
Suppressing funding from Israel's closest international allies in support of Israeli civil society is, alas, not the only fashion in which this government expresses its anti-democratic vision: legislation against the rights of Israel's largest minority -- the Arab citizens -- is a cornerstone of constant legislative efforts; so are the bills aimed at weakening Israel's High Court of Justice and limiting its independence. With civil society, the courts, freedom of speech, and civil equality all under attack, one has to wonder what future "democracy" is this government trying to enact here.
For more than four decades, the occupation has caused numerous human rights violations against the Palestinians, and has poisoned Israel. Beyond the green line, speaking of the "rule of law" is at best cynical. No one could expect such non-norms to remain beyond the green line. Indeed, they have not. The current wave of legislation is at the same time both a result of this impossible combination -- and born out of a desire to further prolong it.
That analysis suggests the following: that saving Israeli democracy will be immensely difficult, for it cannot be done without ending the occupation. But at the same time, this is both hopeful and fair -- for saving Israeli democracy will also finally mean justice for the Palestinians. How could it, and indeed -- why should it -- be any different?
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