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Reza Aslan

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Bibi's Attack on Israeli Democracy

Posted: 11/15/11 05:37 PM ET

American politicians are always calling Israel the one true democracy in the Middle East. Compared to most of other nations in the region (with the exception of Turkey), Israel certainly boasts the strongest democratic institutions, the freest society, and by far the most accountable government. Yet under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, and thanks in large part to a gradual but extreme rightward shift within Israel's political class, the very foundation of the country's democracy has been steadily eroding.

Just this year alone, Netanyahu's right-wing coalition has tried to shut down internal dissent by passing a widely criticized law curtailing the free speech of Israeli citizens who support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against the government. It has pushed forward two bills passed in the Knesset targeting Israeli NGOs and human rights groups that receive foreign funds (i.e. practically all of them): one that limits the amount of money the organizations can receive, and one that places a hefty 45 percent tax on those that accept money from the government.

Now the government has gone even further, passing two new bills that give Netanyahu's party far greater influence over the country's judicial system. The two laws alter the rules for appointing members to the Supreme Court, allowing Netanyahu's favored candidate, Noam Sohlberg, a settler who has championed press censorship, onto the judicial body.

As with the previous legislation passed under Netanyahu's leadership, these new laws are part of a larger attempt by Likud and its right-wing allies to crack down on the pro-peace and anti-settlement groups in Israel, even as massive protests have been staged across Israel calling for greater social justice amid rising costs of living, increased homelessness, and unemployment.

Netanyahu has rightly been condemned for his handling of the Israeli protests. But his blatant attempts to stifle dissent, limit free speech, and deflect his party from criticism or disciplinary measures by stacking the judiciary with his own people has not gone unnoticed either. Kadima leader Tzipi Livni has been especially critical of Netanyahu's moves, promising to "fight Netanyahu's draconian laws," and calling his leadership of the country "an attempt to turn Israel into a dark... dictatorship." Labor party leader Shelly Yachimovich has also spoken out against Netanyahu's efforts to exert control over the government.

The problem is not with who has been speaking out against Netanyahu; it is with who has been keeping quiet. Where is the outrage from Israel's so-called friends in the United States? Why haven't the politicians, activists, journalists, and religious leaders in this country who never tire of praising Israel's democracy spoken up when that democracy is under siege by its own government?

I'll tell you why. It's because a great many of Israel's American friends seem to have confused criticism of the Israeli government with criticism of Israel (something I can personally attest to). The same people who call themselves patriots yet refer to the American President as a Muslim socialist antichrist working to destroy the United States from within, seem somehow incapable of differentiating between loyalty and criticism when it comes to our special friend in the Middle East. That is a graver threat to the long-term existence of the Israeli state than anything Iran may or may not be cooking up.

Israel is still a democracy, and its citizens would like to keep it that way. But when Israel's friends fail to speak up against the government's assault on that democracy, it is Israel's enemies who benefit.

 

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