Israel’s Increasingly Illiberal Politics

By Jacob Kennedy
Contributing Writer
October 5th, 2016

An artist is stripped of funding because a government official thinks he is not loyal to the state. A member of parliament loses his position for opposing the majority party. The government monitors human rights groups as foreign agents. While it may be easy to imagine these possibilities in a country like Russia or Egypt, these incidents are increasingly possible in Israel.

Israel’s political atmosphere is becoming more distrustful and illiberal, threatening the country’s long-term security and making a peaceful solution to the current violence even less likely. As Turkey’s democracy becomes increasingly autocratic, Israel is now the last established liberal democracy in the Middle East. Recent laws passed by Israel have rolled back some protections of free speech and representation, which threaten to stoke even greater conflict. These policies are misguided. Israel’s security can actually be enhanced with another tenet of U.S. foreign policy, commitment to liberal democracy promotion. The United States should speak out more and even sanction Israel for its recent illiberal laws.

Israel’s growing illiberalism manifests itself in all aspects of society, from art and culture to non-governmental organizations and day-to-day politics. A bill introduced in the Israeli parliament, titled the “loyalty in culture” bill, seeks to limit or halt government funding to artists deemed disloyal to Israel. Already, pieces are being banned for failing to support the Israeli nation. Books like Borderlife by Dorit Rabinyan are banned from the Israeli school curriculum for depicting a relationship between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man. The “loyalty in culture” bill and book banning represent a larger culture war that has earned comparisons to the McCarthyism era of the 1950s. Promoting Palestinian culture or anything perceived as anti-Israeli could become increasingly difficult.

Human rights groups and other left-wing non-governmental organizations have also been put under scrutiny by recent legislation. A new law requires groups that receive more than 50 percent of their funding from abroad to disclose their funding sources and register as foreign agents. Of the 25 groups targeted by the law, 23 are human rights and other left-wing groups; and some have criticized the Israeli government in the past. Right-wing groups receive most of their funding from private donors or the Israeli government, exempting them from the law. Israel’s justice minister claims the law is in the interest of transparency, but human rights organizations and other left wing groups have claimed the law limits their ability to speak out on behalf of the disaffected groups of the West Bank and Gaza. Furthering the war on human rights groups, a bill has been proposed that would grant the government the ability to deport or deny visas for human rights groups or others it feels are against the Israeli state.

One of the most contentious and controversial laws recently passed allows a member of parliament to be dismissed from the legislature. Representatives can be dismissed if they are perceived to be disloyal or are seen as promoting conflict by a majority of parliament. Critics believe this law is another tool for Prime Minister Netanyahu to lessen the political power and influence of Israeli Arabs.

In May, Israeli Defense Minister Ya’alon resigned amidst tension with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Ya’alon’s replacement, Avigdor Lieberman, is a controversial member of a right-wing, hawkish party in Israel. In the past, Lieberman was known for illiberal policies and extreme rhetoric. In 2015, he called for the beheading of Israeli Arabs disloyal to Israel. Lieberman also supports the new law against human rights organizations and has called some of them traitors.

The Netanyahu administration is embracing increasingly illiberal laws and attitudes at a time of increasing violence and the growing prospect of a one-state solution. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak even claimed the Netanyahu administration is secretly pursuing a one-state agenda, which Barak believes would be a danger to Israel’s long-term security. The recently passed laws, fear stoking, and two-state denial by Netanyahu in the run-up to recent elections, suggest Israel’s democratic and liberal characteristics are in danger. Israeli security experts believe such a path would do serious harm to Israel internationally, perpetuate the current Palestinian conflict, and thoroughly dismantle Israel’s democracy.

While it is problematic to interfere in another country’s politics, the security cooperation between the United States and Israel requires the United States to take action against all threats to Israel’s security and prosperity. Increasingly illiberal laws and policies could stoke further conflict with Palestine, further isolate Israel, and weigh down the Israeli economy. If the conflict and Israel’s growing international isolation continue, as the “Boycott Israel Movement” threatens, the United States will be forced to spend even more resources to ensure Israel’s security. Should this eventuality occur, support for Israel could further delegitimize the United States’ commitment to liberal democracy.

Funding for artists, human rights groups being labeled as foreign agents, and the appointment of a more extreme defense minister may not seem harmful, but these developments could negatively affect the influence, voice, and freedom of increasingly vulnerable populations, most likely pushing peace even farther out of reach. Less than 12 years after the Oslo Accords, the bold vision of mutual peace held by Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres seems more like a dream than a possibility. If the United States is truly committed to the long-term security of Israel, it must speak out against the current Israeli government’s increasingly illiberal actions until Israel reverses its current policies.

Jacob Kennedy is pursuing his M.A. in Middle East Studies at George Washington University. He holds two Bachelor of Arts degrees in International Affairs and Economics from Marquette University in Wisconsin. Jacob is currently working at the Department of Justice and has previously interned in the Policy Planning Office of the Department of State.

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