An ill wind is blowing through Israel’s Knesset. If passed, a spate of bills sponsored by the governing coalition will have a chilling effect on freedom of speech and compromise the judiciary’s independence.
The laws on the table include the imposition of draconian taxes to impede foreign funding of NGOs, a politicization of the selection of judges and a loosening of libel laws that will have the effect of curbing investigative journalism. They follow previous laws that also restrict open dissent, especially by citizens who aren’t Jewish.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has done little to stop this disturbing trend. Driven by a desire to keep his government intact and to undermine what’s left of Israel’s liberal social and political elites, he’s enabling a process that, if successful, will reshape the country’s institutional values.
Mr. Netanyahu targeted the “old elites” when first elected prime minister in 1996. Defeated three years later, he blamed what he believed was a biased establishment. When re-elected in 2009, he again formed a coalition of religious and nationalist interests. This time, he’s determined to complete his project by ensuring long-term Likud dominance in pivotal decision-making junctures.
Israel’s right isn’t monolithic, and the legislative wave is backed by Knesset members with conflicting world views. These include the secular foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who cultivates his image as a patriotic leader for a largely Russian-born constituency that sees liberalism as a weakness. He shares little with his religious coalition partners: the ultra-Orthodox parties whose focus is increased religious legislation even at the expense of the majority of non-observant Israelis, and the nationalist religious parties whose priority is holding on to the West Bank as part of a divinely promised Jewish homeland even if it means stifling the right to dissent. Nevertheless, these partners find common ground in a disregard for the values of liberal democracy and the institutions that uphold it: the Supreme Court, the press, human-rights groups, academia.
Mr. Netanyahu isn’t opposed to liberal democracy. But by amending his partners’ initiatives only when pressed by tough criticism, he seems prepared to pay a heavy price to safeguard his leadership of the right-wing bloc.
The debate over the nature of Israeli society, the role of religion in public life and the treatment of minorities in a Jewish state isn’t new. But since 1967, the unresolved question of the country’s borders underscores any other discussion. Mr. Netanyahu’s general statements in support of a Palestinian state notwithstanding, his coalition is united in wanting to expand settlements in the West Bank and hold on to that territory. Israeli liberals know this means either eventual annexation of land and people, leading to a state without a Jewish majority, or continuation of a status quo that will render Israel less and less democratic.
But Israel’s liberals lack an effective political voice to stave off the erosion of democratic practice. In the past decade, stalemated peace talks with the Palestinians and ongoing violence against Israelis destroyed the left’s credibility on peace and diminished its Knesset seats and voice in defence of liberal values. As for public reaction, last summer’s widespread social protest showed that, while bread and butter issues could bring masses out to the streets, little else has mobilized them as powerfully. Still, the battle isn’t lost. Many Israelis object to the proposed laws. The stakes are so high that they may yet speak louder to stop them.