Nazareth – As the Arab world rids itself of autocrats one after the other, a series of legal and political moves by Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightwing government to stifle criticism of its policies have prompted warnings that Israel is rapidly heading towards a system of authoritarian rule.
In recent weeks, the Israeli government has put forward measures to muzzle the media, shut down human rights groups, and seize control of appointments to the supreme court to fill it with rightwing judges.
The concerted push against bodies traditionally regarded as the chief watchdogs of executive power comes amid wider concerns that the political climate in Israel – traditionally hostile to Palestinians under occupation and inside Israel – is now also turning against leftwing opponents of the government among the Jewish population.
Last week an Israeli commentator compared Netanyahu to Valdimir Putin, the Russian leader widely criticised for being a strongman, while another analyst warned: “The fears [in Israel] unleashed by the Arab Spring have brought Netanyahu closer than ever to perpetuating his rule and to crushing Israel’s ‘old elites’.”
Dov Khenin, a leftwing member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, has raised similar concerns: “The government has launched a comprehensive assault on democracy, led not by Knesset members from the margins of the right wing but by the prime minister himself. …[Netanyahu] is changing the fundamental rules of democracy.”
Most at risk from the planned changes are Palestinians under Israeli occupation and the 1.5 million Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. Critics warn that with democratic controls removed, and monitoring bodies silenced, Israel will have a free hand to intensify abuses in the occupied territories and entrench its discriminatory policies inside Israel.
The new political atmosphere in Israel has prompted additional concerns that the government is further straining already tense relations with Washington – a fear heightened by remarks reportedly made by Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, this month during a closed meeting of the Saban Forum in Washington.
She is said both to have decried Israel’s threats to hamper the work of human rights groups by ending foreign donations and to have expressed concern at the growing power of fundamentalist Jewish religious groups that seek to enforce strict “modesty” rules on women and gender segregation in public.
Haaretz, Israel’s liberal daily, warned in response that the changes in Israel’s political and social landscape were becoming a “strategic threat…endangering Israel’s relations with its supporters in the West, and especially the American political establishment and Jewish community.”
The latest target has been the Israeli media, selected for new restrictions and intimidation in part, say critics, because Netanyahu and many of his political allies have been the subject of reports of improper and illegal behaviour.
Last year a survey by Haifa University found that 70 percent of Israelis thought Netanyahu’s government was either highly or moderately corrupt, placing it only slightly behind the previous government of Ehud Olmert. A series of scandals forced Olmert to resign in 2008, leading to his being charged with fraud, breach of trust, forgery and tax evasion.
Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, have been accused of accepting trips abroad paid for by private business interests while he was serving as a legislator and then a government minister.
Netanyahu came under similar suspicions during his first term as prime minister in the late 1990s, though prosecutors did not seek a conviction. The allegations, however, forced him to withdraw from politics for two years.
But even more serious for Netanyahu is a growing consensus that corruption has become endemic among Israel’s political class.
A large number of respondents in the Haifa University poll disapproved especially strongly of the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman to the position of foreign minister while he is under criminal investigation. Earlier this year state prosecutors recommended Lieberman be charged with fraud, money-laundering, breach of trust and witness tampering.
However, media coverage of such investigations is likely to be severely curtailed by a bill announced by the government last week. Already nicknamed the “Concealment Law,” it threatens journalists, law officers and public officials with up to three years imprisonment for publicising a criminal investigation.
The bill bans the reporting of all documents related to an investigation, and the restrictions remain in place even after an indictment has been filed unless a senior official overturns them.
Dalia Dorner, a former supreme court judge who now heads the Israel Press Council, accused the government last week of “trying to gag the media.” The Haaretz newspaper warned that blacking out coverage would “assist mainly suspects in high office.”
The bill follows close on the heels of Netanyahu’s decision effectively to shut down Channel 10, one of Israel’s two main commercial television stations, which has earned a reputation for its relatively independent news coverage.
Officials at Channel 10 claimed last month that Netanyahu had threatened to call in a debt of US$11 million immediately unless the management removed a senior journalist, Raviv Drucker, who brought to light the most recent allegations against Netanyahu.
The government’s demand for immediate repayment of a sum considered small given that the channel has lost its shareholders more than US$340 million over the past decade – and a decision that is expected to put 2,500 employees out of work – was characterised by one political analyst as “transparent vengeance.”
It was designed, said Yossi Verter, to send a message from Netanyahu that “Anyone who dares cross the line, publicly criticize, or broadcast a lethal investigative report will meet a bitter fate.”
In a similar vein last month, Netanyahu promoted an amendment to widen the scope of Israel’s defamation law and expose the Israeli media, including bloggers, to a sixfold increase in financial penalties. Those suing would not need to prove that they had suffered damage.
Denying accusations that he was creating a “thought police,” Netanyahu told the parliament he was establishing instead the “publication of truth law.”
But even allies of the prime minister have criticised the measure. Tzipi Hotovely of the ruling Likud party called the legislation “draconian,” saying it was “like using a hammer to kill a fly.”
All these measures follow the government’s success over summer in passing the boycott law, which has limited free speech and opposition to the occupation. Anyone promoting a boycott of Israel or the illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including journalists, can be sued for large damages.
Equally troubling have been moves to curb the work of Israel’s human rights groups. Pressure in the government to clamp down on the organizations has been building since Israel’s three-week attack on Gaza in winter 2008, which killed some 1,400 Palestinians.
The human rights community in Israel is widely seen as having assisted in what the government and its supporters term “lawfare” – or efforts to hold Israel to account for its actions under international law – and international “delegitimization” campaigns.
Netanyahu and his officials were particularly concerned about the involvement of Israeli human rights groups in helping a United Nations team of legal experts, led by Judge Richard Goldstone, to draft a report into the Gaza attack that accused Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes.
Netanyahu has quietly supported two private bills aimed at curtailing foreign funding to Israel’s human rights groups, particularly those monitoring abuses committed against Palestinians by the Israeli security services.
One would end the main source of income for many of the groups by effectively banning donations from the European Union. The other would subject private donations to a crippling 45 percent tax.
The author of the first bill, Ofir Akunis, a Likud legislator and Netanyahu’s former spokesman, defended the funding restrictions by extolling Joseph McCarthy, whose name is indelibly associated with the witchhunts he carried out in the US in the 1950s to define political opponents as subversives.
The two bills are currently being reviewed by Netanyahu after his attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, warned that he would not be able to defend them before the supreme court. The US and Europe have also issued stiff rebukes to Netanyahu over the measures.
But human rights group fear that Netanyahu is waiting to revive the bills at a time when they will face less public scrutiny. The stakes are particularly high for Palestinians, as Yitzhak Laor observed in Haaretz: “This bill truly intends to create a democracy for Jews only. If it were passed, no Arab – whether resident of the territories or Israeli citizen – would have access to the law.”
As Laor notes, the human rights community has made its mark not only in international advocacy but also in embarrassing the government through court actions, particularly in relation to the occupation.
This, say critics, explains other moves by Netanyahu’s government to increase its control of the country’s supreme court. The court has become a key battleground because several judges are due to retire in the next few months, opening up an opportunity for the right to appoint a batch of like-minded judges.
The most significant measure is a bill – backed by the justice minister, Yaacov Neeman – that would skew the composition of the judicial appointments committee to ensure a rightwing majority on the bench.
Yariv Levin, of Netanyahu’s Likud party, who sponsored the bill, said: “We want to fundamentally change the Supreme Court and to get it away from the control of the leftist radical elite that is controlling it and return it to the people.”
The right’s favored candidate for the court is Noam Sohlberg, a district court judge and resident of a West Bank settlement who has repeatedly ruled against human rights groups.
His decision to deny residency to 15-year-old twin boys whose parents and siblings are Israeli residents and live in Jerusalem – thereby threatening to split the family – made headlines last month.
At the same time, 51 high-profile Israelis, including a handful of laureates of the Israel Prize, Israel’s top honour, petitioned Dorit Beinisch, the head of the supreme court, to oppose the government’s plans for the selection committee.
Beinisch, who retires in February, belatedly responded, castigating Israel’s politicians for creating a “poisonous” atmosphere of “open incitement” to undermine and weaken the court.
The Haaretz newspaper quoted a close associate of Beinisch’s saying: “This is a very slippery slope that could lead to Germany of the 1930s, when the majority rode roughshod over the rights of minorities.”