From its birth more than 60 years ago, Israel has always presented itself as “an oasis of democracy in a sea of despotism,” an outpost of pluralism surrounded by tyranny. While that equality never fully applied to the country’s Arab citizens, Israel was, for the most part an open society. But today political rights are under siege by right-wing legislators, militant settlers, and a growing religious divide in the Israeli army, all of which threaten to silence internal opposition to the policies of the government of Benjamin Netanyahu. Since that may include a war with Iran—and the probable involvement of the U.S. in such a conflict—the move to stifle dissent should be a major concern for Americans.
The U.S. media has reported on growing tensions between Israeli women and the ultra-orthodox Haredim over the latter’s demand for sexual segregation of schools, public transport, and public life. But while orthodox Jews spitting on eight-year old girls for being “immodestly dressed” has garnered the headlines, the most serious threats to democratic rights have gone largely unreported, including a host of proposed or enacted laws. Some of these include:
*A law that allows Jewish communities to bar Arab families from living among them. Arabs make up about 20 percent of the population.
*A law that makes it illegal to advocate an academic, cultural or economic boycott of Israel, including settler communities.
*A law that would limit the power of the Supreme Court.
*A law that bars any state institutions—including schools and theaters—from commemorating the “Nakba,” or “catastrophe,” the term Palestinians use to describe the loss of their lands in the 1948 war that established Israel.
*A law that prohibits Palestinians from living with their Israeli spouses within Israel proper and denies them citizenship.
*A law that drops Arabic as an official language.
*A law that requires anyone obtaining a driver’s license to swear loyalty to the state.
*A law that would limit the number of petitions non-governmental organizations, including peace and human rights groups, could file before the Supreme Court.
*A law that forces human rights and peace groups to limit the money they can receive from abroad, and forces them to go through burdensome registration requirements.
Tzipi Livni, former foreign secretary and head of the Kadima Party, told the Knesset that Arab states were “trying to become a democracy, while we—with these bills—are headed toward dictatorship.”
Most of these laws are being pushed by Israel’s rightwing Likud and Yisreal Beiteinu parties, but the proposal to drop Arabic comes from the Kadima Party. Ram-rodding many of these laws are Likid’s so-called “fantastic four”: Danny Danon, Yariv Levin, Tzipi Hotovely, and Ofir Akunis.
“We are in the process of reducing freedom of speech and the freedom of association, and we are infringing on the right to equality, especially vis-à-vis the Israeli Arab,” Mordechai Kremnitizer, a professor of law and vice-president of the Israel Democracy Institute told the Financial Times. “We are also weakening all the elements in society that have the function of criticizing the governments, including the courts. ”
Israeli society is filled with sharp divisions on everything from war with Iran to growing economic inequality. Israel has the highest poverty rate out of the 32-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and ranks twenty-fifth in health care investment. The poverty rate for Israeli Arabs is between 50 and 55 percent.
Starting in the 1980s, Israel began dismantling its social safety net, a trend that Netanyahu sharply accelerated when he served as finance minister in 2003. While slashing money for housing, education, and transport, he cut taxes for the wealthy and corporations.
Most of all, however, Israeli governments poured the nation’s wealth into colonizing the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights, where, according to Shir Hever of the Alternative Information Center based in Jerusalem, Israel has spent about $100 billion. A vast network of bypass roads, security zones, and walled settlements siphoned off money that could have gone for housing, education and transportation in Israel. Special tax rebates and rent subsidies for settlers added to that bill. Some 15 percent of the Israeli housing budget is used to support four percent of its population in the Occupied Territories. Add to that the 20 percent the military budget sucks up, and it seems increasingly clear that the settlement endeavor is no longer sustainable.
Wealth disparity—a handful of families control 30 percent of Israel’s GDP—was partly behind last summer’s social explosion that at one point put some 450,000 people into the streets of Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem demanding reductions in rent and food prices. But so far, organizers of those massive demonstrations have avoided making the link between growing income inequality and Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories. Many of these new laws are aimed at organizations that have been trying to do precisely that.
There are other divisions as well. Israelis are split down the middle over whether to attack Iran—43 percent yes, 41 percent no—but 64 percent support the creation of a Middle East nuclear free zone, and 65 percent feel that neither Israel nor Iran should have nuclear weapons. Those are not exactly the home front sentiments that a government wants when it is contemplating going to war.
Besides the avalanche of right-wing legislation coming out of the Knesset, Israel is increasingly at war with itself over the role of religion in daily life, a conflict that is playing out in one of Israel’s core institutions, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
Two years ago, soldiers of the Kfir Brigade, a unit deployed in the West Bank, unveiled banners declaring they would refuse orders to remove settlers. By international law, all settlements in the Occupied Territories are illegal, but Israel claims that only unregistered “outposts” are against the law and subject to removal. The soldiers held signs that read, “We will not expel Jews.” Six of them were arrested and spent 30 days in the stockade.
The soldiers were graduates of army-sponsored “hesder yeshivas” that allow orthodox soldiers to divide their time between active service and Torah study. Settler rabbis rallied around the six and even provided money for some of the soldiers’ families.
Writing in the progressive Jewish weekly, the Forward, Columnist J.J. Goldberg says that a “secret report” in 2008 warned that such “yeshiva graduates comprise 30 percent of the junior officer corps and rising. In a decade they will be the military’s senior commanders. If a peace agreement is not reached in 15 years or so, Israel may no long have an army willing to carry out its side.”
A majority of Israelis support some kind of compromise to achieve a settlement with the Palestinians, but in the most recent set of talks, the Netanyahu government made it clear that Israel will not surrender any settlements, any part of Jerusalem, or the Jordan Valley. In essence, Palestinians would be forced to live in isolated enclaves surrounded by networks of restricted roads and over 120 settlements. The Netanyahu proposal not only violates numerous United Nations resolutions and international law, no Palestinian government that accepted such an offer would survive for long.
But Israelis who protest an offer that is widely seen as little more than a way to kill the possibility of serious negotiations may find themselves treated in much the same way as Israel has dealt with its Arab citizens.
Those who agitate against the current government may find themselves hit with the new libel law that no longer requires plaintiffs to prove they were damaged and increases awards six-fold. Bloggers, who lack institutional support, are particularly fearful of the new law. Organizations critical of the government that try to raise money from sources outside the country could face huge fines.
According to Hagai El-Ad, director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, there is growing resistance within Israel to the attempt to silence critics, as well as pressure from abroad, including the American Jewish community. Even a pro-Netanyahu hawk like the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman warns “the very democratic character of the state is being eroded.” That resistance has delayed some of the more odious proposals, but the “fantastic four” and their allies are pushing hard to get them on the books.
Why should Americans care? Because if Netanyahu silences his domestic opponents, he will have carte blanche to do as he pleases. And if Tel Aviv attacks Iran, it will be very difficult for the U.S. to keep clear of it. For starters, the IDF will be firing U.S.-made cruise missiles, flying American-made F-15s, and dropping “made in the USA” bunker busters. With the exception of the monarchs from the Gulf states, no one in the Middle East—or most of the world—is going to give Washington a pass on this one.
Does America need another war? If it doesn’t protest the assault on democracy in Israel, it may get one, whether it likes it or not.