Op-Ed: The erosion of democracy in Israel


WASHINGTON (JTA) — The big story likely to emerge from this week’s Israeli elections is the success of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is our home) party. Public opinion surveys predict that the party may win as many as 20 seats, making Yisrael Beiteinu the third largest party in the Knesset and a power broker in the formation of a new government coalition.

Yet Lieberman’s success and his potential presence in a new Israeli government should be a cause of concern for those who care about Israel’s democratic future and who worry about Israel’s growing international isolation.

Lieberman has never disguised his belief that Israel’s Arab citizens are a potential fifth column threatening Israel’s security and well-being. He advocates a policy of “transfer,” whereby areas of Israel that are heavily populated by Arabs would eventually become part of a Palestinian state. Those Arabs living within the transferred areas would have the choice of moving to other parts of Israel or automatically forfeiting their Israeli citizenship.

Proposing such a policy sends an explicit message to 20 percent of Israel’s citizens that they are unwanted in the country in which they work, live, pay taxes and attempt to find some path to equality in the designated Jewish homeland.

Even more pernicious is the party’s slogan — “Without loyalty there is no citizenship.” This notion, reminiscent of America’s dark days of McCarthyism, patently defies a central value of democracy: namely that human and civil rights are not dependent on how a government classifies the nonviolent expression of opinions.

Lieberman’s formulation presents a recipe for the legal disenfranchisement of any Israeli, Jew or Arab, who fails to meet some government standard of “loyalty.”

Unfortunately, the increase in Lieberman’s popularity is not the only indicator of the rise of anti-democratic sentiment in Israel. The Israeli Central Election Commission’s attempt to disqualify two Arab parties from participating in the Feb. 10 election was supported by a large majority of political parties represented on the commission, even as they knew that such disqualifications flew in the face of prevailing High Court decisions. Thankfully the High Court reversed the commission decision, but not before Lieberman and his allies sought to provoke further divisions between Jews and Arabs in Israel.

The situation was already tense. The Gaza conflict, like the 2006 Lebanon War and the outbreak of the second intifada, had placed particular pressures on Israel’s Arab minority. Watching their kith and kin suffer in Gaza, not surprisingly, triggered emotional reactions among large segments of this population.

Still, their advocacy against Israeli government actions for the most part was conducted within the norms of democratic societies: They relied on rallies, ads, letters to government officials and petitions to the High Court to place their concerns before the Israeli public and officialdom. 

Yet most Israeli media coverage, and Jewish media coverage outside Israel, focused on the violence initiated by a few people in a few communities and some repugnant expressions of anti-Semitism by a few Arab leaders.

On one level, despite continuing security challenges, Israel remains a vibrant democracy with a multi-party parliament, an independent judiciary, a free media and an active social change movement. However, the degree to which dissent is permitted when least popular is the most accurate barometer of the strength of a democracy. Thus, recent trends toward repression of dissent, demonizing of the indigenous minority, and out-and-out racism on the part of a significantly popular party are deeply disturbing.

Lieberman’s likely political ascension will transform the question of the quality of Israeli democracy from an exclusively domestic concern to a subject of discussion among Western democracies.

Israel has long promoted international isolation for governments that include parties with views abhorrent to democratic discourse, whether in Austria or Palestine. The international community will not fail to ask about the potential inclusion in an Israeli government of a party that is deemed by many to fall outside the acceptable political pale. Likewise, the organized Jewish communities outside Israel, who appropriately view Israeli elections as domestic matters, must now confront the question of whether to declare a leading Israeli political actor persona non grata for his grotesque political views.

The Lieberman phenomenon provides a major test to the Israeli body politic, international advocates of democratic norms and Jewish communities outside Israel. Ignoring his presence or treating his views as just extreme is no longer acceptable. In this vein, the clear voice of Israeli human rights organizations condemning Lieberman’s provocations against the country’s Arab minority deserves recognition and support.

Yet at the end of the day, the international community, and particularly the United States, must focus on the broader goal of facilitating a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Taking the principled stand of not dealing with a government that includes individuals whose views are distasteful will not serve our broader national interests. The foreign policy challenge requires engaging all relevant actors without legitimizing their offensive perspectives.

(Larry Garber is the CEO of the New Israel Fund and is a leading expert on the right of political participation under international law.) 


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