January 14, 2016 § 1 Comment
Much ado has been made lately over Israel’s now infamous bill regulating non-governmental organizations. This is the proposed legislation requiring Israeli NGOs receiving a majority of their funding from foreign governments to report their funding sources and their representatives to wear identifying badges while in the Knesset. The bill has drawn the ire of many, who note that it applies disproportionately to NGOs on the left rather than the right, the former receiving funding primarily from European governments and the latter receiving funding primarily from individuals, most of them Americans. It has drawn condemnation from a wide range of groups and people on both sides of the ocean, including MKs in the coalition, such as former U.S. ambassador and current Kulanu MK Michael Oren, who said that he will not vote for it. Despite all of the concern, I’m a lot less worried than most. I actually don’t see the bill itself as that big of a deal.
There’s no question that the bill is problematic. The bill is redundant, as the reporting requirements that it mandates already exist under Israeli law. I am uncomfortable with any measure targeting NGOs, let alone one with such nativist tones. The comparisons that Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has made to the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act are facile, as Lara Friedman has pointed out. Only someone with partisan blinders on genuinely believes that this bill is about transparency rather than a naked attempt to hamper leftwing organizations while leaving rightwing organizations untouched.
Ultimately though, the effect of the NGO bill if passed will be to subject representatives of some NGOs to unwarranted humiliation while they are visiting the Knesset building. Is that something to ideally be avoided? Of course. Is it a “danger to Israeli democracy” or “the kind of tactic that Russia and China have employed to squelch dissent,” as the Washington Post editorial board has written? I think that is overstating the case in a significant way. China’s NGO law forbids any funding from abroad, full stop. Russia’s NGO law allows the government at its discretion to shut down foreign-funded organizations and fine and imprison those organizations’ employees. Egypt’s NGO law requires government approval before an NGO can accept overseas funding, and the penalty for noncompliance is seizure of assets and shuttering the organization. The Israeli NGO bill is ugly and unpleasant, but it occupies a different universe than NGO laws around the globe that are genuine threats to a country’s democratic viability.
So now that I have established myself as the least popular guy in the liberal Zionist room, why should you still be worried about this bill? The reason is that the bill itself is not authoritarianism come to life, but it is part of a larger trend of things that are far worse. The NGO bill is a misdirection play that has lots of people and organizations mobilizing against it, when the graver danger is taking place elsewhere.
The strongest objection to the NGO bill is that it subsumes democracy to nationalist politics. Too often, Prime Minister Netanyahu and the current government have caused Israeli democracy to suffer for the sake of scoring political points. It has been obvious for years now – as the most radical elements of the settler movement went from establishing illegal outposts to inciting against the IDF to “price tag” attacks to firebombing houses with their occupants in them – that the decision to enforce a law depends on the identity of the perpetrators. There is the constant threat of a nation-state bill that explicitly prioritizes Israel’s Jewish character over its democratic character. There is the ongoing absurdity of arresting rabbis for performing unsanctioned wedding ceremonies, which is extremism personified and is largely still maintained so that Netanyahu can mollify his preferred coalition partners, who give him a blank check when it comes to nationalist policies.
Israel’s standing in the world is also allowed to erode for the sake of placating political allies. One of Netanyahu’s own cabinet ministers, Uri Ariel, violates Israeli law with repeated attempts to pray on the Temple Mount and nearly ignited a full blown crisis with the United States when his secret building plans for E-1 came to light, but he remains in his post untouched. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, the effective acting Foreign Minister, infuriated the Jordanians and other Arab counties by calling for the Israeli flag to fly over the Dome of the Rock, yet she remains Israel’s de facto top diplomat. The Israeli ambassador to the United Nations has disavowed the two-state solution, and Brazil is refusing to accept the credentials of Netanyahu’s ambassador-designate since he was formerly head of the settlers’ umbrella Yesha Council, but Netanyahu has not treated these glaring problems with the gravity that they deserve.
Is it any surprise then that actual extremists believe they can act with impunity in ways that genuinely challenge Israeli democracy? Ali Dawabshe’s murderer Amiram Ben Uliel and the members of HaMered that stabbed the toddler’s pictures at a wedding reception are not representative of Israeli society writ large, but neither should they be viewed as isolated random noise. When a Jewish group that perpetrated a string of murders of Palestinians, firebombings of churches, and price tag attacks was finally broken up, the government described them as unconnected to any larger political program or viewpoint. In contrast, when a sole Arab gunman with a history of mental problems went on a terrifying shooting rampage in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu spoke stridently about the unacceptable lawlessness of the entire Israeli Arab sector. There is a consistent message emanating from the top of the Israeli government down through Israeli society, and it is an ugly one.
The NGO bill is to my mind the least worrisome element in this catalog of concerns. But it is the shadow on the wall of Plato’s cave, reflecting a deeper truth that is taking place. By all means get worked up about the NGO bill, but keep it in perspective. Should it pass, Israeli democracy will not die. That doesn’t mean that Israeli democracy deserves a clean bill of health.
January 7, 2016 § 4 Comments
The discourse in Israel lately has got me thinking about my first year of law school. One of the first things we were taught was that success in the law (and on law school exams) relies on being able to distinguish cases based on different facts. You may have two similar corporations that refuse to honor similar contracts under similar circumstances, but one will be a breach of contract and one will not depending on all sorts of mitigating factors. In observing what is deemed to be acceptable or not by the Israeli government and its supporters on one side and its detractors on the other, it is handy to have a decision tree at the ready.
For example, let’s examine the issue of foreign funding for non-profit non-governmental organizations. The recent NGO bill that is causing such a stir after passing an initial vote in the cabinet is predicated on the assumption that accepting too much money from sources outside of Israel effectively makes organizations foreign agents who may have nefarious ulterior motives. Its sponsor, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, made that argument explicitly in an op-ed this week in which, after comparing the proposed bill to the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, she wrote, “Like the United States, we have discovered in recent years the danger posed by the existence of forces financed by foreign money.” So the problem appears to be foreign influence, right?
Except that the bill only applies to money coming from foreign governments, not from individuals. Perhaps that is because the bill’s sponsors and supporters only view foreign influence as nefarious if it is governmental influence and not general non-Israeli influence, which is certainly a reasonable position to take. Or perhaps it is because leftwing Israeli NGOs tend to receive their funding from foreign governments while rightwing Israeli NGOs tend to receive their funding from foreign individuals. Or perhaps it is because the most prominent example of foreign funding in Israel is the country’s highest circulation newspaper, the pro-Netanyahu Yisrael Hayom, which is owned by Sheldon Adelson and distributed for free to the tune of millions of dollars lost annually, so decrying any and all foreign monetary influence would quickly become awkward. The point is, it is difficult to take a position on foreign funding without consulting your scorecard.
The same goes for labeling, which is another component of the NGO bill. Representatives from affected NGOs would be required to wear special identification badges while in the Knesset similar to the ones required of lobbyists. The bill’s supporters – which include the entire Israeli cabinet that voted for it unanimously – describe this as a victory for transparency and good government in that it only provides MKs with information without actually impeding the ability of NGOs to operate. More information leads to better and accurately informed decisions, and so there is no problem with slapping informational labels on stuff, right?
Except that this argument gets turned on its head when it applies to the European Union guidelines calling for goods produced beyond the Green Line to carry labels declaring them to come from the settlements. In that instance, proponents of the effort to label NGOs based on where their funding originates fundamentally oppose the effort to label goods based on where their production originates. Shaked, for instance, stated in response to the EU that “European hypocrisy and hatred of Israel has crossed every line” and that the move was anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist. The free speech for me but not for thee dynamic is not, of course, confined to Shaked or the Israeli right. The EU, which insists that the settlement goods labeling initiative is nothing more than an apolitical technical move, stating “The Commission is providing guidance to the EU member states and economic operators to ensure the uniform application of the rules on indication of origins of Israeli settlement produce,” unsurprisingly does not view the NGO bill in a similar light. Rather than viewing it as a mechanism to ensure uniform application of information on origins of NGO funding, the EU’s response was to warn Israel about “reigning in its prosperous democratic society with laws that are reminiscent of totalitarian regimes.” As with foreign funding, one’s perspective on labeling depends on where you happen to be sitting with regard to the particular initiative under consideration.
Other examples abound as well. When Netanyahu declared last week that he was not willing to accept pockets of citizens who do not abide by the laws of the state and who instead foment hatred and radicalism, it would have been a logical response to the indictment of Amiram Ben Ulliel, the alleged murderer of Ali Dawabshe, who is part of a larger movement of hilltop youth that are plotting to overthrow the state. Netanyahu instead was referring to the Arab Israeli sector following the shooting rampage carried out by Nashat Melhem, a lone gunman who has not been tied to any larger group or plot. While Netanyahu’s condemnation of Ben Ulliel has been unequivocal, his tarring of all Israeli Arabs for the actions of one compared to how he speaks about the radical right as isolated from any broader trends speaks volumes. Far more egregious is Joint List MK Osama Sa’adi, who refused to categorize the October murders of Eitam and Na’ama Henkin as terrorism because “Settlers are occupiers that steal the land of the Palestinian nation. We are against harming innocent civilians, but there is a difference between settlers, who are occupiers, and Tel Aviv.” Or Habayit Hayehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich, who says that the Dawabshe firebombing was not terrorism because terrorism can only be perpetrated against Israelis, not by them.
Perhaps issues in Israel are always so divisive and subject to hypocrisy and I am falling prey to the availability heuristic, but the current period seems to be more rife with such examples than usual. It would be great if everyone could take a deep breath, acknowledge that some issues are indeed matters of life and death and others aren’t, and see that a little more consistency combined with a dose of empathy would do the entire country some good. Unfortunately, I fear that I am destined to remain frustrated.
December 23, 2015 § Leave a comment
2015 was a busy year in Israel, with elections, the Iran deal and the accompanying fiasco of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to Congress, the return of routinized violence in the streets, and other stories big and small occupying headlines. While 2016 will (presumably) not bring another election, there will be plenty of other momentous events and slow-burning stories that occupy Israel. At the risk of opening myself up to some serious embarrassment at this time next year, here are some issues that I think will manifest themselves in a major way over the next twelve months.
Israel is a rare case when it comes to the relationship between the political and military leadership. Since most Israelis – and virtually all of the political leadership – do mandatory military service, military issues are not unfamiliar to any policymakers. On the other hand, because the IDF is Israel’s most revered institution, military leaders are accorded enormous respect and deference by the Israeli public. It means that Israel’s elected officials are in a better position than elected officials in many other countries to challenge the military leadership when disagreements arise, but are simultaneously constrained by a public that itself has firsthand familiarity with the military.
When the politicians and the generals are on the same page, this is not a problem. When they are not, the potential exists for things to get hairy. Netanyahu has famously been on the opposite side of issues with IDF chiefs of staff and Mossad and Shin Bet directors in the past, but it has seemed over the past two years that the current government is never in the same place as the upper echelon of the security and intelligence establishment. The disagreement over whether to attack Iran before the Iran deal has given way to disagreement over how to deal with the growing terrorist violence erupting from East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and it almost seems inevitable that at some point down the road, the IDF is going to be asked to take actions to which it is adamantly opposed. I do not in any way mean to suggest that Israel is in danger of a military coup, since that seems about as far-fetched a possibility as Netanyahu all of a sudden embracing the BDS movement, but there is no question that the recommendations and priorities of the security leadership are clashing head on with the desires and priorities of the political leadership. Look for this to become an even bigger issue in 2016 as Palestinian violence grows and what to do in the West Bank becomes a more acute problem.
While you wouldn’t necessarily know it in the U.S. unless you regularly read beyond the headlines of the Israeli press, there are a couple of political scandals besetting Netanyahu that are ripe for explosion. The first surrounds his unusual process of appointments and suspicions that his primary criteria for evaluating whether someone is fit to lead Israel’s police force or become the next attorney general is if those appointees will turn a blind eye to the second, which is Sara Netanyahu’s household financial chicanery. It was reported this week that attorney general Yehuda Weinstein will allow the police to question Mrs. Netanyahu over allegations of misappropriating state funds in running the official Netanyahu residence, which comes on the heels of the search committee for the next attorney general recommending Avihai Mandelblit, who is seen as beholden to Netanyahu and likely to shield him and his wife from any future investigations. Possibly connected to this is Netanyahu’s strange decision to try and hold the primary for Likud chairman – which would normally happen six months before a Knesset election – as soon as two months from now in a blatant effort to forestall any challengers to his primacy. While Netanyahu’s motives may just be to get his ducks in order and catch rivals such as Gideon Sa’ar off balance well ahead of an election campaign, he also may be trying to get this out of the way before the scandals nipping at his heels catch up with him. Whatever the case, this will be a story to watch over the coming year.
Orthodox vs. Orthodox
Yedioth Ahronoth ran a feature over the weekend on the “new elites,” who are largely in the Naftali Bennett mold – young religious Zionists who are supportive of the settlement movement. While I think it is too soon to write the obituary for the secular liberal Ashkenazi elite that dominated Israel since its founding, there is no question that the fortunes of the national religious community – largely analogous to American Jewry’s modern Orthodox – are on the rise. The proportion of religious IDF officers and elite commandos has been skyrocketing for some time, and the heads of the Mossad, Shin Bet, and Israeli police all come from the national religious camp. Bennett and Tzipi Hotovely are the political figureheads of this new elite, and there is no question that their influence is rising.
The Orthodox are not monolithic, however, and the fact that the Haredi population is on the rise as well – not to mention that Shas and UTJ are back in the coalition and are Netanyahu’s favorite political partners due to their general quiescence to his agenda – almost guarantees more intra-Orthodox friction in 2016. As it is, there is bad blood between the Haredi parties and Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi, stemming from Bennett’s alliance in the last coalition with Haredi bogeyman Yair Lapid and the fight between the Haredim and the religious Zionists over the chief rabbinate, and the tension will continue to rise. The new religious Zionist elite is not willing to live with the status quo that grants the Haredi rabbinate a monopoly over the state’s religious institutions, and religious Zionist and Haredi priorities are frequently not in alignment, with the former caring first and foremost about hanging onto the West Bank and the latter caring first and foremost about stamping out secularism and continuing the state subsidies for yeshivot and other Haredi mainstays. The clashes that have so far been mostly below the radar are likely to burst into the open the longer these two camps have to coexist with each other in the same narrow coalition.
So there are some of my broad predictions for what we will see, and keep on following this space over the next year to see whether I’ll be completely wrong or just a little wrong. Happy New Year to all.