The disappointing and disappearing dedication to democracy in Israel

Haneen Zoabi: Should she be allowed to run?
MK Haneen Zoabi: Should she be allowed to run?

It’s hard to believe that only a little over two months has passed since the Israeli government collapsed over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed nation-state bill. The controversial proposal defined Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” undermining the concept of Israel as “a Jewish and democratic state,” as enshrined in the 1948 Declaration of Independence. When it was clear that the draft bill relegated democracy to a second-class status, the nature of democracy – and the need to preserve it – became the subject of fierce and impassioned discussion throughout the country.

Those discussions have essentially disappeared as political parties vie for visibility and voters in the coming elections, some of them unabashedly abandoning all pretense of defending democracy or its principles.

In a move to appeal to right-wing supporters, two political parties and an individual politician – Likud and Yisrael Beitenu and Likud Knesset Member Danny Danon – filed petitions with the Central Election Committee to disqualify Knesset Member Haneen Zoabi from running on the Joint List, a coalition of Arab parties. “The request to disqualify her is meant to defend Israeli democracy against those who seek to destroy it from inside,” said MK Yariv Levin, Likud coalition whip and the party’s representative on the elections committee.

After similar petitions were filed before the last election in 2012, the Central Election Committee disqualified her participation, but the Supreme Court unanimously overturned that decision.

Zoabi is hardly among the most soft-spoken or charming of Knesset Members. Even those who support her right to speak – and to represent her constituents as she perceives their feelings – find some of her remarks difficult to digest. However, as recent editorial in Haaretz stated: “In a democratic country candidates cannot be disqualified because what they say is unpleasant to hear.” If that yardstick were applied to other candidates in other democratic countries, it would be considered offensive and appalling.

More upsetting than the predictable petitions from right-wing parties, however, was the announcement by Isaac Herzog, head of the Labor Party, that the Zionist Camp, the center-left party he formed with Tzipi Livni, will support the effort to oust Zoabi. This move – contrary to his stated position two years ago – rules out any possibility of Joint List support for a possible center-left government and indicates that Herzog would be prepared to join a government headed by Netanyahu.

At the moment that appears to be a moot point. Just this week, Netanyahu stated he would not invite the Zionist Camp to join any government he might head and Livni has ruled out the possibility that her party would accept. Currently the two leading parties, Likud and the Zionist Camp, are tied in the polls with 23 seats each – insufficient to form a government without recruiting coalition partners to reach the required 61-seat total that constitutes a simple majority of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

Likud has also filed a petition with the Central Election Committee against a new NGO called V-15, short for Victory-2105, claiming it is surreptitiously funding the Zionist Camp and Meretz, a left-wing party, with illegal funds from abroad to strengthen their open goal of replacing the current Likud-led government. Florida businessman S. Daniel Abraham, a major supporter of V-15, vehemently denied directing funds to specific political parties. “I support the Jewish people with everything I have, because I want Israel to remain a Jewish, democratic, proud and independent state and not half-Jewish and half-Arab,” he told an interviewer on Israeli television. On Sunday, the State Attorney’s Office announced it would not investigate V-15 before the elections.

In a related move, the New Israel Fund demanded an apology and received a retraction from Likud for publicly accusing the organization of providing financial support for V-15 and “pro-peace organizations.”

In addition, a number of Likud Knesset members and Naftali Bennett, head of the religious-nationalist Habayit Hayehudi party, have withdrawn their participation in next week’s Israel Democracy Conference in Tel Aviv, sponsored by Haaretz, because the New Israel Fund is one of the conference funders. They were joined several days later by Shas Chairman Aryeh Deri, who also pulled out, saying the event had become divisive.

“Unfortunately, the cancellations by the representatives of Habayit Hayehudi and Likud strengthen the feeling that there is an urgent need for this type of conference, particularly during the stormy and complex election season we are currently going through,” a Haaretz statement noted, pointing out that the express purpose of the conference was to encourage a public discussion of democracy in Israel that involved representatives of all points of view across the political spectrum.

The program will address the limits of freedom of expression, the independence of the Supreme Court and Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state – and speakers will include Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin, a courageous defender of democratic principles. Unfortunately, those would most benefit from an exchange of ideas on these topics will not be present.

As New Israel Fund CEO Daniel Sokatch noted: “That’s too bad; I wish they had the courage to engage in civil civic debate with people who don’t share their views but who want to give them a hearing.”

Sarabeth Lukin is an American/Israeli journalist who lives in Jaffa.


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