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November 23, 2011
Over the last several weeks, Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, has been considering a series of controversial measures that have sparked intense debate about the potential damage to Israeli democracy. The issues at stake include the independence of the Israeli Supreme Court, funding for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and libel laws aimed at the Israeli press.
The new libel legislation has understandably raised the ire of the news industry in Israel and has brought together such unlikely bed fellows as the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz. According to the Jerusalem Post editorial, “If passed in second and third readings by the Knesset, the legislation, a collaborative initiative of MK Meir Sheetrit (Kadima) and coalition MK Yariv Levin (Likud) would seriously intimidate journalists, editors and publishers....the bill comes at a particularly inopportune time as the Israeli press grapples with economic woes resulting in part from the ongoing transition from print to Internet and falling advertising revenues along with a rise in the influence of various business interests over editorial decision-making. But even in the best of circumstances, amending the 1965 Defamation (Prohibition) Law — strongly influenced by restrictive British law — to further curtail press freedom is a bad idea.”
For Haaretz’s Yael Sternhell, there is an element of irony in the reaction of the conservative media to the new legislation, suggesting “Most media outlets failed to protest vehemently against the laws that discriminate against Arab candidates for civil service jobs, and did not cry out against the law imposing sanctions for boycotting products made in the settlements. They didn't get agitated over the bill (since frozen ) that explicitly aimed to wipe out left-wing movements and human rights organizations by blocking donations from abroad....Now it's the media's turn. There is a straight line connecting the laws that discriminate against Arabs to the recent steps taken against the press....It has now become clear that anti-democratic legislation and the persecution of political opponents affects not just left-wing movements in Jerusalem or the Arabs in the Galilee, but also the journalists sitting in the centers of power in Tel Aviv who are used to enjoying fruitful cooperation with the government.”
Yediot Ahronoth’s Yair Lapid warns the right-wing politicians, who he suspects are behind the legislation, that what they fail “to grasp [is] that neo-fascist rightist laws will be emulated by leftists later…. This is a simple and efficient principle that had been adhered to until now in Israel. The majority safeguards the rights of the minority exactly (exactly!) like it would want its own rights to be safeguarded had it been in the minority....In the past two weeks, the Knesset legislated a series of neo-fascist laws, with coalition Knesset members showing arrogance and disgust towards the other side of the political spectrum. The fact that the Left raised a hue and cry and fiercely objected did not bother them too much. In fact, it even proved useful to them among their voters. What they failed to understand is that while the Left was screaming, it also watched them closely; it watched them, and learned.”
Moshe Gavish writes on the business daily Globes against the libel law: “The balanced case law, and the generally responsible approach of the press and media, have, over time, led to a fair balance between freedom of speech and the public's right to know on the one hand, and protection of privacy and a person's right to preserve his or her reputation on the other. This balance is about to be upset by a joint effort by members of Knesset from Likud, Kadima, and parties of the right, who are promoting an amendment to the Libel Law....Passing a law that means a real economic threat to publishers will strike a mortal blow at the public's right to know. This is a further link in a chain of legislation in recent years that is changing the face of the State of Israel and undermining the democratic principles on which it was founded.”
For some, the lack of opposition from prominent politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, points to a “conspiracy of silence.” As Attila Somfalvi opines on Yediot Ahronoth: “How can Netanyahu explain his endorsement of the law without the personal motive, which seeks to scare off investigative journalists looking into his past, current and future actions? And how can Ehud Barak explain his surprising arrival at the Knesset late in the evening (he was never a distinguished parliamentarian) only to vote in favor of the law for scaring journalists, if not based on a personal, vengeful motive — the desire to curb those who exposed the illegal maid he employed at his home, the extent of his business and the size of his apartment?”
But the libel law is not the only controversial piece of legislation currently considered by the Israeli Knesset. There is also a push to regulate NGO funding, ostensibly to make them more accountable to Israel’s domestic interests. One of those supporting the law is Lawrence Solomon, writing for the Jerusalem Post: “The push to regulate NGOs is consistent with democracy…. Israeli politicians such as Amir Peretz (Labor) and Tzipi Livni (Kadima) say it is ‘antidemocratic,’ ‘fascist,’ ‘a blow to democracy’ and evidence of ‘a dark dictatorship’ to exercise control over political NGOs by regulating their dealings with foreign bodies. If so, the same charges apply to the governments of the United States and Canada....The European Union, the European nations, and the European NGOs who fund Israeli NGOs have no basic investment in Israel’s well-being, yet they profoundly influence Israel’s political process. The wonder is that the citizens of the Israeli democracy have permitted it for so long.”
B’Tselem views the legislation differently: “The anti-democratic initiatives only strengthen our resolve…. The Prime Minister has frozen these proposals for the time-being, however they are part of a broader attack on democratic institutions in Israel, like the High Court and the press, and on critics of current government policy....Government watchdogs like B’Tselem are an important part of any democratic society. I am proud of B’Tselem's work to make Israel a more just and equitable society....I call on all those who share our commitment to human rights and want to ensure the health and vibrancy of the Israeli democracy to speak up now and help us stop these efforts to stifle Israeli civil society. I have full confidence that, working together, champions of democracy both inside Israel and around the world will overcome these dangerous initiatives.”
On at least one piece of legislation — the judge vetting bill — Netanyahu has chosen to block some elements from being considered by the Knesset. The action has not sat well with Arutz Sheva’s Gavriel Queenann: “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday reiterated his opposition to a proposal by MKs Zeev Elkin and Yariv Levin (Likud) that would require candidates for Israel's High Court of Justice be vetted by a Knesset committee, similar to the U.S. Senate review of Supreme Court Justices....It is unclear how Israel's democracy would be undermined by the bill. Many democracies with highly independent courts, including the United States, require those nominated for sensitive and influential judicial positions be vetted by lawmakers. Netanyahu, however, did not oppose two other bills aimed at reforming Israel's High Court, which were passed on their first plenary reading in the Knesset last night.”
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