Monday, July 25, 2011

Who Struggles with God...

Coat of Arms of Israel (Wikipedia)
For a moment, we will turn away from the curse upon our House the American people voted in last November and consider the consequences of another far-right movement brought in by a dissatisfied public.  For whatever its faults--and there are many--Israel is the only truly functioning democracy in the Middle East so far.  Although freedom can often be relative if you are an Arab, especially if you live in the West Bank or Gaza, the nation has strong democratic institutions and a largely free and open press.

It seems few Israelis realized those institutions, that they take for granted, yet often evoke, are under attack--from within.  For years Israel has identifed threats to its thriving democracy as country's like Iran or the terrorist organization turned Palestinian political party Hamas (which still refuses to acknowledge Israel's right to exist).  For the far right, the threats may also exist in what they call the "Fifth Column" of their society, Arab Israelis.  Although there is debate to what qualifies as the Israeli right-wing now, this latter belief has been a benchmark of hardliner Israelis since the nation was founded in 1948.

First some background.  Israeli politics have always been, er tumultuous.  The Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, was based on the Yishuv that ran Jewish affairs under the British Mandate.  After the UK left Palestine, the independent State of Israel formalized an electoral system in which voters choose parties rather than individual candidates in constituencies or districts (South Africa actually does something quite similar).  The parties receive seats roughly in proportion to the vote tally they win.  The result, is often a situation where no party has a majority, typically a prerequisite of forming a government (by way of comparison, the African National Congress dominates South African elections).  

Israeli Voting Booth (Wikipedia)
As a result, excluding a rare majority held by the Israeli Labor party's predecessor and a handful of unity governments between the two main parties, Israeli governments are formed through coalitions.  Per Israeli law the President of Israel, a largely ceremonial figure, usually selects the leader of the largest party to form a government.  This is done via bartering and bargaining with like-minded smaller parties and the religious parties, who often receive plum minister positions, but care little for the back and forth among the secular parties.  Last time, however, this did not happen even though Kadima, led by the former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni won the most seats of any party (Livni used to be a member of Likud).  Instead, the former premier Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of Likud, formed a government with the hardliner Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Avigdor Leiberman, and other like parties.  The result has been a fairly right-wing government.  Early on, it appeared as though Netanyahu, mindful that past hardliners like Menachem Begin had become peacemakers, had the upper hand even getting a freeze on new Israeli settlements in the West Bank.  However, the clock ran out and Leiberman, now the country's foreign minister, demurred.

Since that time, Israel has rebuffed prodding by President Barack Obama to restart peace talks and shuddered as its neighbor and Egypt underwent a dramatic transformation earlier this year.  There was talk of an absurd oath requirement that would have run aground of the secular principles the nation's early founders wanted for their country.  Laws were debated and defeated that could have undercut the Israeli Supreme Court's independence.  Then the Knesset passed perilously anti-free speech boycott bill earlier this month.  It was followed by a measure that would investigate the country's left-leaning Non-government organizations.  That bill failed spectacularly, due in no small part to several MK's walking out on the vote.  Political observers noted that Prime Minister Netanyahu bailed on the earlier boycott bill, while coalition partner and one-time Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak skipped the NGO bill.

Organized boycotts of Israel have traditionally been the work of Arab countries in an attempt to harm Israel via economics.  They have not been particularly effective (on paper Israel has been doing pretty well).  However, their intention to punish an entire nation for the sins of some is not especially prudent.  Consequently, when Arab countries boycott Israel, it is often read as out of protest of Israel's existence and not merely its human right's record (pot calling the kettle black, hmm?).  While any boycott is questionable, it is more understandable to boycott settlements in the occupied territories as they are a prime example of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

Prime Minister Netanyahu (Wikipedia)
Israel's new boycott law, however, goes well beyond blunting Arab boycotts.  According to Association of Civil Rights in Israel, the law is not focused on the boycotts of Arab countries like American law is, which has been compared to the Israeli law.  Instead it provides for private suits by individuals against anyone that boycotts an Israeli company, citizen or institution in addition to the state itself.  More alarmingly, the legislation does not even limit itself to actions related to the occupation of the West Bank.  Potentially any boycott or speak-out could be subject to suit even if it were on health care or the environment.

The American anti-boycott law refers only to participation in actions that support the boycotts of Israel initiated by Arab countries.  Essentially, if you engage in efforts that facilitate the Arab boycott you may be in trouble.  If you want to organize an anti-Israel boycott in your town and not buy Uzzis in protest, you are almost certainly in the clear.  The parallels, the ACRI points out, are almost non-existant.  Additionally, the Israeli law does not even require direct proof of injury from boycott activity to initiate suit against individuals or groups.  The US law, since it is prosecuted by the government, does.

Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-WI) (Wikipedia)
To make matters worse, a bill pushed by Likud member of  the Knesset (MK) Danny Danon and Yisrael Beiteinu MK's appeared to be a blatant attempt to resurrect Joe McCarthy.  The bill, if passed, would have "set up panels of inquiry into human rights organizations in Israel."  Roundly panned by Kadima and PM Netanyahu himself, it failed with only a miserable 28 votes for to 57 against.  Thirty-five MK's did not bother to show up, which one Israeli blog called "voting with their feet."  Even if they had shown up it would have in all likelihood put the vote totals over the 60 vote mark by a safe margin, but that nearly a quarter of the Knessett would even consider a new witch hunt is deeply troubling.  This is, after all, the very democracy Netanyahu praised when a heckler interrupted his speech to Congress, using the interruption as proof of democracy's strength in the US and Israel.

The McCarthy séance died in the Israeli parliament and the boycott bill may be struck down by the courts, but until an election can intervene (if the government collapses, an election could soon follow), there will continue to be the pull of the far-right.  "A dark wind is blowing through the country—created by Netanyahu's coalition," Livni the leader of Kadima said.  At the center of that dark wind, appears to be Yisrael Beiteinu.  That party is primarily supported by immigrants from the former Soviet Union and appear driven by a fear of losing their new home—where they feel safe—to Palestinians.  Indeed, Leiberman, the party leader, lives in a settlement (although he has said he would move if it meant peace).  Still, that fear has devolved into a paranoia of even their fellow Jewish Israeli citizens.  Of course YB is not alone.  There are other radical parties, long marginalized in the Knesset, but even if not in the governing coalition, they have had more opportunity to exercise their prerogatives.

US State Department HQ, Washington (wikipedi)
So why does this even matter?  Our own State Department issued a non-disapproval disapproval of the boycott law, although the Anti-Defamation League and J Street, two prominent pro-Israel groups in the US condemned the law.  Well, the squelching of democracy anywhere is a problem, especially in a country that has had a rich history as a liberal democracy, if inconsistently among its Arab population.  However, it also serves to illustrate how fascism and right-wing radicalism can creep into our society, even democratic ones.

We have begun to see this in the United States following last year's election of so many hard-right hardliners.  Voters cast out Democrats because of jobs, not because of abortion.  They certainly did not vote in Republicans with the intent to suppress the vote with tactics from tight photo ID requirements to proposals that would restrict voting by college students.  The latter was openly defended by the New Hampshire Speaker on the grounds that college students do not vote for the right candidates.  Meanwhile the nation is plunged into a manufactured debt crisis by right-wingers who refuse to capitulate, even in victory, and that threatens America with a true Depression. That should do the trick for the 9.2% unemployment.

Even now, Israel is facing its own domestic problems beyond the Palestinian question.  Protests have ramped up in Tel Aviv over housing prices and the middle class, particularly its youth, are growing increasingly dissatisfied with their meager share of the country's otherwise booming economy.  Netanyahu has taken notice, but this problem should not be news to him and his response has been tepid at best.  Likewise, when will our country's right realize that now is not the time to be pushing ideology in a single-minded quest to impose their vision on America.  This is all the more troubling when that ideology threatens the United States' principles, its virtues and above all, its people.

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