Carlo Strenger
The Guardian (Opinion)
July 12, 2011 - 12:00am

The flood of anti-democratic laws that were proposed, and partially implemented, by the current Knesset, elected in February 2009, constitute one of the darkest chapters in Israeli history. The opening salvo was provided by foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party with its Nakba law, that forbids the public commemoration of the expulsion of approximately 750000 Palestinians during the 1948 war.

Since then, a growing number of attempts were made to curtail freedom of expression and to make life for human rights groups more difficult. The latest instance is the boycott law that was passed on Monday by the Knesset, even though its legal advisor believes it to be a problematic infringement on freedom of speech. This law makes any call for boycotting Israel economically, culturally or academically a civil offence that can be punished with a fine. Any public body making such a call will lose its legal status and will no longer be eligible for tax-deductible contributions.

The law, as Knesset member Nitzan Horowitz from the leftist Meretz party said, is outrageous, shameful and an embarrassment to Israel's democracy.

Despite the outrage, I will try to analyse the question: what stands behind this frenzy of attempts to shut down criticism? The answer, I believe, is simpler than many assume: it is fear, stupidity and confusion.

It all starts with Binyamin Netanyahu's political conundrum. He has been under great international pressure to move ahead with a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Neither his right-wing coalition nor his own Likud party allow for meaningful compromise with the Palestinians. Add to this that Netanyahu is far more of a hardline rightwinger than his sophisticated appearance might suggest. I think he actually believes that the 1967 borders are indefensible, and that Palestinians cannot be trusted.

To play for time, he has been selling the Israeli public the idea that the Palestinians have never accepted Israel's existence; that the issue is not Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza blockade, but that the legitimacy of Israel's very existence is being called into question. While this is true for Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, it is not true for the free world except for a relatively thin layer of extreme leftists who claim that Israel is by nature a racist, illegitimate state. Netanyahu's fear-mongering is enhanced by Lieberman, who keeps accusing Israeli Arabs of being a security danger for Israel, and has initiated a number of anti-Arab proposed laws.

The result of Netanyahu and Lieberman's systematic fanning of Israeli's existential fears is tangible in Israel: polls show that Israelis are deeply pessimistic about peace; they largely do not trust Palestinians, and in the younger generation belief in democratic values is being eroded.

But this pessimism and siege mentality is not only found in ordinary Israeli voters, but also in the political class. After talking to a number of rightwing politicians, I am unfavourably impressed by their total lack of understanding of the international scene. They have profound misconceptions about the world's attitude towards Israel, and very little real understanding of the paradigm shift towards human rights as the core language of international discourse. All they feel is that Israel is being singled out unfairly for criticism and that it has a PR problem rather than realising that Israel's policies are unacceptable politically and morally.

This is certainly justified when it comes to the UN commission on human rights, which has a record of absurd over-emphasis on Israeli human rights violations compared with any number of countries ranging from China to Sudan. But these politicians genuinely do not understand that the international community, for good reasons, is sick and tired of Israel's occupation of the West Bank, and simply wants Israel to comply.

Add to this a small, but very powerful, group of ideological rightwingers who, on theological grounds, genuinely believe that Jews have a God-given right to the greater land of Israel, including Judea and Samaria, the heart of historical Israel. No Israeli governments except those of Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon have risked head-on confrontation with ideological rightwingers, among other reasons because of their potential for violence; Rabin, indeed, paid with his life for taking on these apocalyptic, messianic fanatics.

Out of their utter confusion between international criticism of Israeli policies and existential danger for Israel, the more moderate rightwingers look for a scapegoat for Israel's unprecedented isolation. The Israeli left and human rights organisations are an easy target. Rightwingers claim that these provide the international community with ammunition for criticising Israel, and are trying to silence them.

Existential fear, confusion and ideology create the explosive mix that is drawing Knesset members into the maelstrom of ever more anti-democratic measures, of which the boycott law is the latest, but, I am afraid, not the last instalment.

What will the future bring, then? In the short term, I am not optimistic. Ordinary citizens in Israel don't trust the world; its politicians are richly rewarded for noisy declarations of undying patriotism and for defying the world. The result is a bunker mentality bolstered by melodramatic comparisons to the siege of Masada in the year 72CE that ended in mass suicide. All this is likely to keep the right in power for the time being.

In the long run, I think that Israel will come to its senses. The more recognition, including by the UN, a Palestinian state receives, the more Israel's political class will come to the conclusion that the price for holding on to the West Bank is too high.

Until then Israel's democracy will be beleaguered by the right, but it will survive.

Freedom of speech in Israel is intact; the Knesset's more totalitarian leanings have been kept in check, and I do not expect their attempts to silence criticism to succeed.

Israel is too liberal in its basic structure, and its elites are too sophisticated and too committed to liberal democracy for any attempt to actually turn Israel into a totalitarian state to succeed. It is these elites' task to sustain the structures of Israeli civil society, until the madness subsides.


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