Blog post: Israel’s steady slide away from democracy

A. Reviakin is a current intern at Caabu. He is studying Arabic and International Relations at the University of Durham.

On the 11 July 2016, Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, passed a so-called ‘NGO law’, designed to “create transparency and clarity in relation to the parties financing Israeli NGOs”. The bill requires organisations which receive more than half their funding from a foreign government to declare that funding on all their documents and letters.

There is no doubt that transparency is key in a democratic society. It is important that people know who might be influencing them in the barrage of information and advertisements the public receives in this internet age. However, the bill is a worrying prospect, as it discriminates in the organisations which must declare themselves “foreign agents”.

The bill would effectively discriminate almost solely against human rights organisations. It is these organisations which receive funding from foreign governments including internationally respected Israeli bodies, such as B’tselem, Peace Now and Breaking the Silence. Far right Israeli organisations in general receive their funding from private individuals. The demarcation is clear and has disturbing implications. Transparency laws in Israel are already strict, with funding regularly reported. The bill is thus not particularly significant legally but hugely significant politically. The suggestion, by the bill’s proposer justice minister Ayelet Shaked and her supporters, is that human rights are at odds with Israel’s security and foreign policy.

However, the passing of this bill does not come as a shock. It has come at a time when the Israeli government’s policy is becoming increasingly right-wing and even more dismissive of human rights and international law. In the first six months of this year 20% more Palestinian structures have been demolished or confiscated than in the whole of 2015 according to the UN. The appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as minister of defence in May 2016, a man who is avowedly pro illegal settlements, and Netanyahu’s rejection of a Palestinian state to win an election, shows the dark road Israeli policy is heading down. A policy which simply ignores the international community’s condemnation and insouciantly flouts international law.

Let’s be clear: there are plenty of other countries which disregard international law, countries which the UK, the US and the EU have constant dealings with. Abuses are ignored in favour of arms deals, oil deals and the idea of a steadfast ally in a volatile region. Israel, however, is often considered the Middle East’s only democracy, in contrast to the monarchies of the UK and US’ good allies Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. This is partly to do with Israel’s diverse civil society. A strong civil society is key to a strong democracy which promotes freedom of expression and opinion. Israel’s new bill will most likely stifle that civil society's plurality of opinion in Israel. It is a very similar measure to Russia’s foreign agent law of 2012 and only serves to paint human rights advocates as foreign moles in an act of near McCarthyism.  

The difference with Russia is that the international community has taken a strong stance against that breach of freedom of expression. After Russia passed its “foreign agent” law Angela Merkel publicly denounced it, standing next to Putin at a press conference.  Sanctions are applied to Russia when it oversteps the line, as happened with the annexation of Crimea. Israel does not receive sanctions when it continues to build illegal settlements. Even the former prime minister of the UK, David Cameron, a “true friend of Israel”, admitted to the “genuinely shocking” nature of the constructions. Instead, when the same tactics are used against Israel as are used against Russia and Iran, they are lambasted as anti-Semitic.

This cherry-picking of reactions to war crimes and flouting of international law legitimises those very breaches. If we follow the fear-mongering about the ‘Russian bear’, that country’s dismissal of human rights is inevitable. Russia is not seen as a close ally of the UK, the US or Europe. The West should be far more worried about the breaches by “our friend and ally” Israel. Our acceptance of the Israeli policy of separation and intimidation delegitimises any criticism we have of other regimes.

Israel was not founded to dehumanise a population. Israel was founded to give a home to a population which too often had been dehumanised itself. The international community cannot keep ignoring violations in the occupied Palestinian territories. The international community cannot get by with snubbed statements of distress or disappointment. To be remotely credible on the international stage  international community must take definitive action. Ayelet Shaked’s law threatens what still exists of Israeli democracy. Israel must not become the “secret-police state” that the renowned Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz predicted in his 1968 essay The Territories. The  international community must do all it can to protect freedom of expression and a vibrant civil society in Israel.

The proper international response to this NGO law is to increase support politically and financially to these extraordinary human rights groups that shine a light on persistent and ever worsening Israeli human rights violations.

Blog post by Alexander Reviakin, 21/07/16