Democracy, delegitimization and denial in Israel

By Aeyal Gross

Does the decision to form a parliamentary committee to investigate Israeli human rights groups mark the end of Israeli democracy? I would rather consider it as another nail in the coffin. Early in 2010 I wondered whether we are seeing the end of Israeli democracy. Indeed, the investigative committee is only a part of a wider phenomenon of attempts to silence and de-legitimize criticism and protest.

The question of whether Israel could be described as a democracy is not a new one. Mostly, it is the long term occupation that cast a doubt on Israel’s nature as such. By turning from a temporary to an indefinite situation (an issue I addressed in detail in this co-authored article), the occupation undermined even the most fundamental principle of democracy, i.e. consent of those governed. Clearly the discrimination and exclusions of Palestinians even within Israel proper, as well as other questions of ethnic and class exclusions stain Israeli democracy, but in the context of the occupation it is impossible to even talk of the existence of a minimalist concept of democracy.

The regime of violent control of the occupied territories, where two populations live, subject to a different system of laws, with one (the settlers) dispossessing the other (the Palestinians) with the full cooperation of the occupying power, could not be described as a democracy. And the distinction in this case between democracy within Israel proper (with all of its own problems) and the occupied territories collapsed as the occupation became longer. Human rights groups as well as scholars have been questioning whether Israel’s description as a democracy is viable for a while now.

What, then, has changed? I believe the most central change is that until recently one thought that it is at least possible to relatively freely report and protest injustices and human rights violations. Of course, even in this context freedom of speech was relative. Jews enjoyed more of it that Arabs, and any one researching Israeli constitutional law can see the different attitude taken by the Israeli Supreme Court to cases involving speech by Jews vs. speech by Arabs. In recent years we have seen more threats to the freedom of speech of Palestinians even within Israel.

But in spite of this discrimination, the possibility to report and protest what’s going on existed on a relatively consistent level. The shift we are witnessing in the last few years is an attack on freedom of speech, in way that aims to allow the deepening of the violations of other human rights, and the worsening of the oppression inherent to the occupation, including the attacks on civilian population, and the dispossession and discrimination.

This is done through the attack on the possibility to report and protest wrongs, and by the creation of a threatening environment, where it is implied that those who engage in criticism, may be subject to investigation (including by the proposed committee) and even in some cases imprisonment. What we are witnessing now is an attempt to trample on one of the few remaining elements of democracy, the freedom of speech that allowed reporting and protesting atrocities. And diminishing this freedom of speech will only allow the deepening of other human rights violations, which some hope will go unnoticed, unreported and without protest. One of the reasons that freedom of speech is crucial is the fact that it allows to at least attempt and create some accountability. From this perspective, indeed human rights are interdependent and indivisible.

The attack on freedom of speech is not only in the form of the parliamentary investigation. It is joined by many other steps, some of which I have discussed in previous posts. Among them, the attacks on Israeli academia by groups who are supposedly examining whether university instruction is “patriotic” enough, and the fact that the Knesset education committee even bothered to conduct discussion of these “reports”; the harsh attack on human rights groups and on the New Israel Fund by a few groups who pretend to “monitor” human rights groups, but actually are engaged in attempts to de-legitimize them; the arrests of demonstrators in East Jerusalem, both those protesting the dispossession of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah and those protesting the discrimination of women in the Western Wall; the arrests of some of the leaders of the protests in Bil’in as well as the violence towards those demonstrators, ending more than once in death; and the recent sentencing of Israeli activist Jonathan Pollak to jail for a demonstration against the Gaza War.

It seems that the idea of the current Knesset investigation is so obviously wrong, that it hardly needs refuting. And yet, it is worth mentioning that Israel has a Registrar of Associations which is trusted with supervising the proper administration and reporting of all NGO’s, and that those are mandated as it is by law to submit financial reports, and to specifically pronounce on their websites (see here for example) any donations that they receive from “foreign political entities”. So there is no lack of transparency or information about the sources of funding for the human rights groups, as alleged by those advocating the investigation. Indeed a declaration by Israel’s leading human rights groups stated that “we have nothing to hide; you are welcome to read our reports and publications”.

Perhaps at this time it is not superfluous to also recall that it is the Knesset’s role, as Israel’s parliament, to oversee the executive, not the human rights groups. There is a supreme duty to maintain the independence of human rights groups who are supposed to point to human rights violations by the government (and also in relevant cases by private actors), and it is clear that subjecting these groups to such an inquiry threatens this independence.  Clearly Israel also has a police which is authorized to investigate any violations of the law. It is clear then that all that is left for this parliamentary committee is a political “investigation”, or in the words of none other than the Speaker of the Knesset, Reuven Rivlin, a Likud MK himself, a show trial. Indeed, the results of the investigation have already been pronounced in advance by Foreign Minister Liberman’s whose party was the major force in advocating it, when he said human rights groups “aid terrorism”. One may recall the scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, when the King, “for about the twentieth time that day”, suggested that the jury be let to consider the verdict, but the queen insists that “Sentence first – verdict afterwards”. In the case of this “investigation” it seems that both verdict and sentence have been decided in advance.

The turning point for the changes described here occurred with the war in Gaza and the Goldstone Report that followed. Even if as I discussed before, the Goldstone report may be criticized and is not perfect, then the total and orchestrated attack on it, as I have previously written elsewhere, attempted to de-legitimize Goldstone for the purpose of preventing a debate regarding the killings of civilians by Israel in Gaza. The Gaza war, as well as the flotilla incident, thus marked the culmination of a process where the gap between growing internal and external criticism of Israel’s activities and policies, especially in regard to the occupied territories on one hand, and the belief of many or actually most Israelis that all of Israel’s actions are justified on the other hand, was no longer sustainable. The way to contain this gap ever since then is by attempting to dismiss all criticism as biased, unreliable, treacherous, and in some cases anti-Semite, and also to try to silence through different measures that will create a chilling effect, including this investigation.

The attacks on the academy, the recent political trials of activists, and the parliamentary investigation of human rights groups must thus all be understood as part of this process. The success of these attacks is manifested inter alia in the diversion of the discussion from the message to the messenger. When the occupation and the violations associated with it are joined by attempts to silence reporting and criticism, then the attack on democracy is even graver. It has been reported [Hebrew] that there are other measures against NGO’s that are being planned ahead, such as cutting off the activities of human rights groups in public schools, and the abolishment of tax exemption for donations to human rights groups. To that one should add the recent wave of racism in Israeli society and the growing number of racist bills proposed in the Knesset which join a few proposed anti-democratic bills.

To recap, the results of this attack are:

>>The diversion of the discussion from the criticism and the human rights violations to discussion of the messenger (be it Goldstone or the NGO’s, whose funding, objectivity etc are being discussed).

>>De-legitimating of human rights groups and thus a denial of human rights violations especially in the context of the occupation; this allows in turn continuing these violations while avoiding public discussion of them and diverting public opinion from criticizing them.

>>An attempt to silence or at least to create a chilling effect that will deter human rights groups, (and also academics and others), from expressing dissent.

In order to understand how Israel reached this situation, one must go back in time to the failure of the Camp David talks in 2000. In a nutshell, one should recall that after 2000 a meta-narrative took dominance in Israeli society, according to which Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians very “generous” offers in Camp David, which they rejected, and instead attacked Israel with terror. This is joined by the narrative according to which Israel’s ending of the occupation in Gaza was responded to with rockets fired into Israel. The supposed conclusion from these narratives is that Israel does not have a partner for peace, and the full blame for the situation is that of the Palestinians. This narrative is extremely hard to pierce in Israeli society, notwithstanding the many things published on the problematic nature of Barak’s proposals in Camp David, on the fact that the beginning of the Second Intifada was typified by Israelis killing Palestinians and not the opposite, and that the occupation of Gaza has not ended but was rather transformed [PDF]. (None of the above should imply that Palestinians do not have any responsibility for the turn of things, or that terrorism and firing of rockets at civilians are not wrong both morally and legally, and to deny that these actions by Palestinians created much damage not only to Israelis but also to the Palestinians themselves).

As has been shown by researchers such as Daniel Dor, Israeli media often partakes in creating and reinforcing this narrative. This is true regarding the beginning of the second Intifada but was also apparent in the flotilla incident, and during the recent killing of a demonstrator in Bil’in, where the Israeli press seemed to advance the army’s version of events even more than the IDF spokesperson himself.

When the prevailing view in Israel is that all of what Israel does is legitimate and amounts to defensive action, while some of the Israeli public and much of the world refuses to accepts the widespread killings of civilians and the ongoing occupation and dispossession, it seems that indeed the only way for Israel to engage with the criticism is by interpreting it as being part of unfair persecution of Israel. It is twice ironic that the criticism of Israel is now being dismissed as attempting to de-legitimize Israel.  First because this approach creates an identification between the occupation and related Israeli policies and Israel, and second because it is actually the attempts to silence dissent, rather than its existence, that is delegitimizing Israel. If until recently Israel enjoyed credit because much of the world perceives it as a democracy which allows open debate and that is typified by vibrant civil society, then recent developments are causing it to gradually lose this credit.

How do we get out of this situation? Carlo Strenger describes a “vicious circle of paranoia” where anxiety is translated into hatred and suspicion, which disrupts communication with the outside world and internal groups designated as enemies and where politicians are pressured into conforming to right wing demands to fall in line in the face of impending doom, and are desperately afraid to be seen as traitors if they point out that there might be more cooperative modes of action. He considers that given the alternative of escalation, international pressure toward change is now the lesser of two evils. But beyond the issue of international pressure, the question remains whether society in Israel will open its eyes to these processes and start demanding change. The apathy and silence of many parts of Israeli society are extremely worrying. It is almost hard to believe that this is the same society where 400,000 took to the streets after the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982. Today, too few are willing to speak out and be active against the growing McCarthyism, fascism and racism. But maybe the decision to investigate human rights groups will backfire at its initiators in a way that will ignite some change. This investigation was harshly criticized not only by the Speaker of the Knesset but also by three other senior Likud MK’s (Begin, Eitan and Meridor). By the way their reaction was much stronger than that of the head of opposition, Zipi Livni, who did speak out against the investigation, but it was too little and too late, especially given the fact that some MK’s from her Kadima party actually supported it in the vote held in the Knesset’s plenary.

However, perhaps the fact that this “investigation” is a move that is clearly discernable to many, including Israeli elites, as anti-democratic, may help in drawing attention to the fact that it is part of a very troubling and growing process. If this will not happen, things may only get worse. This is also the time for cooperative action, (without much ideological purism), of all who support democracy and equality on one hand, and oppose racism and the continuation of the occupation on the other hand. Let’s hope that many will realize that, in the words of Ed Murrow, this is not the time to keep silent, that we cannot escape responsibility, and that “[t]here is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities”. The rally taking place in Tel-Aviv tonight will be hopefully a step in this direction. In the hard battle for democracy in Israel this is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end, and I fear in this case, it is not even the end of the beginning.

Prof. Aeyal Gross teaches international and constitutional law in Tel-Aviv University; he is currently also a Visiting Reader in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. A Hebrew version of this post was published on his blog.