Israeli Democracy under threat?/ Abbas under fire for talking to Israelis
Apr 8, 2016
Update from AIJAC
April 8, 2016
Number 04/16 #03
This Update features an important essay discussing the oft-heard claim – originating primarily from the political extreme left in Israel, but often echoed by commentators abroad – that Israel’s democratic institutions are being eroded rapidly by various measures put in place by right-of-centre governments of recent years. It also addresses the recent controversy in Israel over a soldier charged with manslaughter after shooting dead an apparently disarmed terrorist in Hebron, and the significance of the reaction to Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas’ interview on Israeli television last week.
The essay on claims about Israeli democracy is written by Times of Israel reporter Haviv Rettig Gur. He first discusses the surprising reality of Israeli democracy given the origins of most of Israel’s early citizens, which he views as rooted in the accidental creation of checks and balances across the various sub-sections of Israeli society. He says that contrary to claims from the Israeli far-left, most of the allegedly anti-democratic legislative changes they object to actually never become law because actors on the Israeli right act to stop or change them. Furthermore, he argues, the far left in Israel defines “democracy” very differently from most Israelis, essentially equating it with key aspects of their own program, and thus damage their own ability to influence Israeli debates. This is just a tiny taste of a few aspects of a long but very insightful essay, and to read it all, CLICK HERE.
Next up is a comment from a uniquely insightful source into the recent Hebron shooting controversy, noted above. That source is distinguished Israeli academic, moral philosopher Prof. Asa Kashar, who has helped the IDF develop its Code of Conduct. He makes it very clear that what the soldier allegedly did was unacceptable and criminal, and those arguing otherwise are being misled, perhaps in part by the role of distrusted left-wing NGOs in the story. He also makes it cleat that those who argue that this incident somehow taints all IDF soldiers or Israeli society as a whole are wrong – not least because action was immediately taken to investigate and charge the soldier by his superiors within the IDF. For this essential look at the morality of this case from a serious and informed ethicist, CLICK HERE. More comment here from columnist Dan Margalit.
Finally, Palestinian affairs reporter Khaled Abu Toameh looks at the response in Palestinian society to PA head Mahmoud Abbas’ conciliatory interview on Israeli television last week – as well as some other outreach to Jews and Israelis that Abbas had undertaken. Sadly, he reports that the response has been a huge increase in demands for Abbas to step down, including from within his own Fatah party, demands not made in response to his increasingly dictatorial rule, nor his flouting of the constitution by remaining in office long after his term officially expired. Abu Toameh says Abbas is a victim of his own nurturing of incitement and failure to educate Palestinians of the virtues of peaceful coexistence. For this complete argument, CLICK HERE. An account of Abbas’ meeting with a group of Moroccan Jews is here.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Abbas also called in his Israeli TV interview last week for talks with Israeli PM Netanyahu. Netanyahu accepted as has Israeli President Rivlin, but chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat responded by rejecting talks unless Israel meets a series of preconditions.
- Some new sources on incitement in Palestinian education – see here, here and here.
- A Palestinian teacher, Hanan Hroub, won an international prize for her peace education – but sadly it’s not peace with Israel she teaches, as noted here.
- A Palestinian official says the US is Palestinian’s “Number one enemy” and Washington is under “Jewish-Zionist occupation.” Another former official blames Jews for the global financial crisis.
- AIJAC’s Glen Falkenstein on how Palestinian Authority officials and official media responded to the recent Belgian terror atrocities by blaming Israel.
In the cacophony of grandstanding over Israelis endangered liberties, one of the most profound debates in the countrys history is being missed
In a recent op-ed in the Forward, Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the left-leaning US-based New Israel Fund, laid out his widely shared aspiration to rehabilitate the Israeli left from afar by flooding it with cash.
The attacks on civil society and other democratic institutions continue from year to year, he wrote, with some right-wing victories such as passage of the boycott law [which allows civil suits to be brought against West Bank settlement boycotts], and some defeats at the hands of Israels underestimated and underfunded left.
Sokatch retold the narrative now commonly accepted overseas that sees Israeli democracy in decline, if not in full-blown collapse, as once-victorious Israeli progressives are pushed back in the face of a surging chauvinist right.
The evidence most often cited for this purported decline in Israeli liberty is the raft of right-wing bills proposed in recent years in the Knesset, including the boycott law mentioned by Sokatch.
And is this assault, as Sokatch claims, held back by the heroic efforts of an underestimated and underfunded left?
The debate over the wisdom or perfidy of the bills themselves is a hopelessly partisan one. But this last part of the lefts narrative the claim that the bills are being stopped by the left is eminently testable, and sheds a great deal of light on the meaning and purpose of the bills.
Much ink has been spilled on Justice Minister Ayelet Shakeds NGO bill, which dramatically (and critics say unfairly) ups the public disclosure requirements for nongovernmental organizations that receive a majority of their funding from foreign governments. Just about all the groups that fit that description belong to the political left.
Whether the controversial bill is good or bad, democratic or anti-, it is undeniably a far milder attempt to deal with the issue than previous proposals. In the 18th Knesset (2009-2013), Likud MK Ofir Akunis (now the minister of science) proposed a bill that would have outlawed such funding altogether, all but shuttering many far-left groups.
What happened to Akuniss proposal? Was it defeated, as Sokatch suggests, by the left?
A similar question might be asked of the rightist versions of the nation-state bill that drew so much opprobrium in 2013 and 2014, the ones that contained much-criticized stipulations demoting the de facto status of Arabic as an official language and granting West Bank settlements constitutional protections.
Where did they go?
The answer would surprise many who have opined on these bills in recent years. For it wasnt the left that stopped Akuniss bill. How could it have? The bill never made it to a vote in the Knesset where left-wing lawmakers might have had the opportunity to take a stand. It was killed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and fellow coalition leaders, and not in any dramatic parliamentary showdown. It was simply excluded from the agenda because it lacked the minimum support it would have needed to even hazard a vote.
The story is much the same with the two nation-state bills, but this time the lefts haplessness is shown by the fact that the bills did make it to a plenum vote where they passed.
They did not become law, to be sure. They only passed a preliminary vote, and only after Netanyahu struck a compromise with their authors, including three currently serving cabinet ministers (Shaked, Zeev Elkin and Yariv Levin), that saw the bills killed after the vote. Under this compromise, the authors were handed the symbolic victory of a successful vote on the condition that they then cancel their bills in favor of a more liberal Netanyahu-proposed version, one which described Israel as equally Jewish and democratic, left out any demotion of Arabics status and avoided the settlement question altogether.
In these votes, the left had a rare opportunity to embarrass not only the bills far-right proponents, but the prime minister himself. It tried to muster the votes and failed. They were formally canceled in a vote inside the Netanyahu cabinet, on Netanyahus express instructions.
The point of this into-the-weeds journey into the fate of those bills is simple: it is the right, not the left, that is holding back the proverbial tide.
And these are not cherry-picked examples. The list of right-wing bills defeated by the right is a long one.
A bill proposed by the Yisrael Beytenu party that would have instituted a death penalty for terrorists surely an easy win in terror-afflicted Israel was defeated 94-6 (yes, 94 to 6) in a July 2015 Knesset vote. Even in its most indelicate fantasies the underestimated left cannot hope to summon 94 votes in the 120-seat Knesset.
Ironically, Sokatchs own example of the controversial 2011 boycott law, which made the singling out of West Bank settlements a legally actionable act of discrimination under Israels anti-discrimination laws, undermines the narrative just as comprehensively. Foreign pundits often point to it to sustain the democracy-in-decline argument, if only because there are so few other examples of the successful passage of a distinctly right-wing law in seven years of emphatically right-wing rule.
Yet the boycott law was so defanged by the time it actually passed, with criminal sanctions excised from the final version and a high bar set for proving even civil damages, that it has yet to be enforced.
It is worth dwelling on that point for a moment: five years after its passage, the boycott law has not even been tested in court and not for lack of Israelis who say they wont conduct commerce with settlements.
And even after the teeth were pulled from this controversial bill, Netanyahu himself still refused to support it in the final July 2011 Knesset vote that made it law, pointedly absenting himself from the plenum (together with then-defense minister Ehud Barak).
The list grows tedious (and thats the point). Ayelet Shakeds longstanding proposal to add a supersession clause in the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, which would have enabled the Knesset to overrule High Court of Justice decisions, was dropped last summer during her very first days on the job as justice minister. Her explanation: she lacked the votes to pass the measure, or to make it worth fighting for, even within the right-wing coalition.
Just last month, Jewish Home MK Moti Yogevs bill outlawing the broadcasting of the Muslim call to prayer on loudspeakers was withdrawn by its own author because he could not obtain the support of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, a cabinet committee overseen by avowed rightists (and, for good measure, outspoken West Bank annexationists) Shaked and Levin. A similar bill suffered an entirely similar fate in 2014.
Sokatchs underestimated left is a mirage. The left is just as ineffectual as its critics contend.
And if it is the right, not the left, that holds the line against the supposed anti-democratic surge, does that mean Israeli democracy is not, in fact, under threat?
The rights persistent habit of systematically toppling its own bills reveals the underlying gimmick that drives so much discussion about Israel on both left and right.
It is easy to argue that the left overreacts to these bills, but it is harder to argue that this is entirely the lefts fault. After all, it is usually the rightist lawmakers themselves who declare that their bills are meant to solve the supposed problem of too much democracy, or who say they prefer Israels Jewish character to its democratic one. To the lefts growing use of democracy as a catchword for its liberal politics, many on the right have responded by calling for rebalancing i.e., weakening that democracy.
In the end, this debate about Israels democracy, both at home and among those overseas who take their cues from Israels domestic politics, is mostly driven by the faux stridency of powerless demagogues by rightists who propose unpassable bills in undisguised bids to become the lefts latest bogeymen, and by leftists whose hand-wringing ensures them both their foreign patrons and their mobilizing ethos of victimhood.
Or put another way, the frenetic rhetorical contest between left and right is essentially a media event, not a policy debate. The bills would not be proposed if the lawmakers could not be assured they would not be held responsible for their passage.
Thus it was that on a certain Wednesday night that of September 2, 2015, to be exact in a Knesset plenum nearly empty of lawmakers, MKs Akunis of Likud and Israel Eichler of United Torah Judaism managed to inject an amendment into the Broadcasting Authority Bill that would come up for a final vote that evening that made it illegal for journalists in state-owned media outlets to express personal views on political matters. The law passed, and the amendment became the law of the land.
When they noticed it the following morning, horrified political reporters took to calling it the silencing law.
The new requirement caused a triumphant told-you-so uproar of victimization on the left and profound embarrassment on the right. It passed by accident, coalition leaders explained. By Sunday, when lawmakers returned from the weekend, it was Netanyahu himself who brought forward the amendment to reverse the measure. It was overturned within the week.
Akunis and Eichler made weak attempts to defend the measure, but seemed more horrified at its successful passage into law than at its swift cancellation.
It is not an accident that these bills usually swell in number in the run-up to right-wing primaries. They are not meant to pass, only to be proposed. There is something profoundly unfair, Akunis and Eichler must have thought last September, in suddenly, by a trick of legislative timing, finding that their bill had become law and finding themselves held responsible for the results.
Israels far-left activists, who are often at the center of these left-right skirmishes, know all this.
In a statement sent to reporters in January, BTselem and Breaking the Silence, two groups funded primarily by foreign governments and thus subject to the stipulations of Shakeds NGO bill if it passes, called the bill an own goal for the government.
The law wont hurt our activities in practice, Breaking the Silences CEO Yuli Novak whose group seeks out testimony from Israeli army veterans and serving soldiers relating to human rights abuses against Palestinians in the West Bank boasted in the Hebrew-language statement.
Hagai El-Ad, Executive director of BTselem, which also works to document human rights abuses in the West Bank, added: The campaign of incitement against us has had some positive results: we are finally talking about the occupation. Thousands of Israelis have joined the organizations [that stand to be affected by the bill] recently in order to learn, listen, volunteer and contribute to the fight against the occupation.
The bills practical content is sparse, the statement went on apparently without coordinating its message with overseas supporters like Sokatch, who are arguing otherwise but its symbolic significance is far-reaching. Mainly, it undermines the claims of the Israeli propaganda machine that Israel shares the values of the democratic world.
One wonders if this last part about Israels values shouldnt also have been coordinated with the likes of Sokatch, whose rhetoric speaks of protecting Israels values, while these advocates are telling the world (and, crucially, boasting to Israelis that they are doing so) that Israel lacks such values altogether.
There is a deeper message in these gaps between the rhetoric of these Israeli activists and that of their overseas supporters, between the lefts claim that it is upholding Israeli democracy and the less heroic facts on the ground in the Knesset, between the rights own feigned militancy and the reliability with which it then kills its own bills.
In the rift between rhetoric and reality is revealed a strange truth about this debate on democracy: that it is not really a debate about democracy, but about solidarity, kinship and the social compromises on which Israeli society is constructed.
Statist, intrusive, free
Israel boasts many of the features of highly successful democracies: an open and contentious public square, free and egalitarian parliamentary elections, robust judicial recourse and oversight.
But no one quite knows why.
Built by East European and Muslim-world immigrants with no actual experience of democracy, the Israeli state is, on paper at least, worryingly monolithic and intrusive. The local traffic cop, the school textbook, the neighborhood rabbi, even the local ritual mikveh bath, are all appointed and administered by watchful bureaucrats in Jerusalem.
Nor did Israels early history favor democracy. For the first 29 years of the states existence, the center-left, today called the Labor Party, never lost an election. This de facto one-party regime controlled not only the countrys powerful security services, but much of the economy. Israels largest industries were state-owned and -run (and thus de facto Labor-owned and -run) in those decades.
There are almost no formal checks and balances between the branches of Israels government. The prime minister is not chosen directly by the people, but in a complicated process of parliamentary coalition-building. He or she cannot govern without a parliamentary majority, and is thus not meaningfully constrained by any American-style opposition legislature.
Nor does Israel possess any clearly articulated ideology of political liberty. There was no Philadelphia Convention at Israels founding, no Federalist Papers, no explicit public debate about the nature and shape of the countrys political institutions. The Declaration of Independence, which refers in broad terms to notions of freedom and equality, lacks the force of law.
Only in 1992 were some key rights delineated in two pseudo-constitutional basic laws, yet even these are in an important sense only halfheartedly constitutional. The Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, which articulates fundamental rights such as bodily safety, privacy and freedom of movement, can be changed or overturned by a simple majority of MKs present in the Knesset plenum.
Add to that Israels bitter history of near-constant warfare that gave the military a central role in the formation of national identity, the heroicizing of military leaders that naturally flowed from this experience indeed, add in the enormous number of generals who moved seamlessly out of uniform and into the highest elected offices in the land: Yitzhak Rabin, Moshe Dayan, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak and one begins to feel that it is not the allegedly looming collapse of Israeli democracy that should surprise us, but the fact that so robust a democracy ever took root here in the first place.
Why did it take root?
In The Origins of Political Order, the political theorist Francis Fukuyama offers a counterintuitive retelling of the story of the birth of English democracy. The Magna Carta, signed by King John in 1215 after he lost a battle with rebellious nobles at Runnymede, is usually depicted as the beginning of the end for absolutist royal rule in England. By placing limits on the powers of the king, the great charter is said to mark a dramatic first step in Britains inexorable and inevitable process of democratization.
But for Fukuyama, this version of English political history, this vision of history as inevitably arcing toward present-day liberalism, misses the most salient factor in Englands democratic development. Britons are free today not only because the king was weakened at Runnymede, but because he was also simultaneously strengthened.
The monarchy that emerged after 1215 was startlingly powerful, centralized and legitimated by its sharing of political power. By the 14th century, the English state was largely professionalized, controlled its territory to the point that it could tax it effectively, and had imposed royal courts across the land that could overturn the decisions of local lords.
The extent of its strength is best shown by comparing it to Fukuyamas counter-example: the French monarchy. For all their famed pageantry, French kings were never strong enough to meaningfully tax their nobility, and so resorted to conspiring with them against the peasantry. Unconstrained in any formal sense, but also lacking the legitimacy of their English counterparts and only tenuously in control of the land-owning classes of their country, the Bourbon monarchs gave up on ever imposing a uniform tax system in the country and resorted to selling tax-collection offices to local lords, all but exempting them from taxation while subjecting the lower classes to a double burden. In the end, the French monarchy was felled as an enemy of the people by the very classes it had abused.
But in England, the very fact that he was forced to confer with Parliament over taxation and war gave the English king the ability to do both effectively. In the eighteenth century, English state spending reached as high as 30% of GDP, while Frances, even in the two decades of nearly constant war with England from 1689 to 1713, could not surpass 12-15%. The English could double and triple the size of their navy when need arose without compromising the national finances; the French drove themselves repeatedly to the brink of bankruptcy.
This empowering effect of power-sharing lies at the heart of English liberty, and of Britains eventual preeminence. For English democracy, Fukuyama explains, did not begin in the weakening of government, but in a more complex standoff, exemplified at Runnymede, that empowered all sides.
The key to the standoff was just that: that it was a standoff. The nobles could sometimes defeat the king, but not topple the monarchy. The king could win battles against armies assembled against him, but never entirely crush the regional lords when they banded together. The result was a tense equilibrium between more or less matched opponents king vs. nobles, monarchy vs. Parliament with no side able to comprehensively quash the other. The rights and obligations each eked out of the other were initially extracted by force quite literally at sword-point at Runnymede then by implicit agreement, and eventually, over the centuries, by the institutionalization of these arrangements in the peculiar unwritten traditions of Britains monarchic democracy.
And it would not have happened without a strong king, one to whom commoners could turn through regional kings courts for redress of grievances against the nobility, one who could unite the country in war, one who could serve as an embodiment of a shared national identity in peacetime.
Unbeknownst to foreigners, the British love for their unelected royals, that odd phenomenon of a robustly liberal democracy apparently pretending to be a theocratic dictatorship, is in an important sense a reenactment of the origins of English liberty. When they celebrate their monarchy, the British are not celebrating kings and queens as such, but the rule-bound, peculiarly English sort of royalty that formed one-half of that primordial political balancing act from which their present-day freedoms, and those of so many others who learned from their example, originally flowed.
From its earliest moments, the Jewish polity in Israel was divided not merely into political camps but into distinct social, ideological and ethnic groups that usually lived apart from each other and carried on separate cultural lives.
To this day, these divides play an outsize role in Israelis identities and voting habits. Israelis are more likely to vote according to their ethnic origins or religious observance than any clear economic or political interest. In political terms, Haredim live apart from secular Israelis even when they live among them, such as the many Haredi families who reside in the heart of secular Tel Aviv but vote as though they lived in Bnei Brak. Villages founded by Labor socialists fifty and even a hundred years ago continue to vote Labor, even when the village in question is a West Bank settlement that present-day Labor seeks to displace. The Ashkenazi-Sephardi divide returns in force each time Israelis go to the ballot box, and continues to serve as a key predictor of voting patterns in communities throughout the country.
Yet the centrifugal pull of these identity politics is kept in check by an overpowering belief among Israeli Jews, forged in the still-living memory of the brutalities of the 20th century, that they share a common fate. Most Israeli Jews are the grandchildren of refugees, and for most of them the state serves even today as a vehicle for fulfilling the original Zionist promise of a self-reliant refuge in a cruel world.
This ethos of refuge lies at the heart of Israeli solidarity. It is responsible for the deep-seated taboo against intra-Jewish violence. Amid countless wars and terror attacks, bordered on all sides by an imploding, war-ravaged Arab world, Israelis usually say they find the rare instances of Jew-on-Jew violence more unsettling and traumatic than even the largest and most frightening of the wars they have fought with outsiders. The sinking of the Altalena in 1948, the 1983 killing of Peace Now activist Emil Grunzweig or the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 all instances when Jews killed other Jews are better known to most Israeli high schoolers than the full-blown wars that took place in those years. They are studied as watersheds of the Israeli experience because they are seen by so many Israelis as events that violated the premise of collective responsibility at the heart of the Israeli Jewish narrative.
The impact of this ethos of solidarity cannot be exaggerated. If one cannot violently repress fellow Jews, one is left with an exceedingly limited number of options for political regimes. If Prime Minister David Ben Gurion could not order Israels security agencies to rid him of the troublesome opposition leader Menachem Begin not only because he didnt want to do so, but also because he didnt believe the security services would have obeyed such an order that fact alone means Israel could not help but develop an open, self-critical political discourse, open competition between rival political camps, and the free elections that enable that competition to take place fairly and without bloodshed.
The essential elements at the root of Anglo-Saxon liberties, then, were all present at the dawn of the Israeli Jewish polity: an unwinnable competition among mutually antagonistic groups shackled to each other in a unifying ethos of solidarity, a simultaneous push and pull that forces on Israels Jews the compromises that make up what Israelis call democracy.
Israels democracy, like Britains, is thus in a deep sense accidental, organic, rooted as much in the collectivist instincts of this refugee nation as in any self-conscious notions of individualism or political liberty.
These compromises are evident everywhere in Israeli society and politics.
When it comes to religion and family law, for example, Israeli Jews are subject to an explicitly illiberal rabbinic court system that unapologetically denies the right to marry to hundreds of thousands of Israelis. Yet the vast majority of Israeli Jews live free and unfettered family lives, marry whoever they wish and even enjoy judicially recognized cohabitation rights for gays. They are able to do those things through the simple expedient of completely ignoring the rabbinate. There is an unspoken contract between Israels competing Jewish tribes that permits the rabbinate to be as stifling as it wishes on paper as long as it does not make the mistake of attempting to impose itself on Israelis lives in reality. The most illiberal family law system in the free world thus rests tenuously atop an essentially liberal and accepting society.
Similarly, when asked to produce a detailed analysis of the nation-state proposals of 2014, one of Israels most renowned public intellectuals, the law scholar Ruth Gavison, recommended shelving the various bills and bluntly warned Israeli leaders against engaging so explicitly with the question of Israels national identity. Her reason: Israelis inherited from their founders a powerful vision for their country, but its power lies in its vagueness. A Jewish nation-state law may upset the balance between elements crucial for maintaining the vision as a whole.
Israels identity, Gavison effectively argued, should not be articulated too clearly or in too much detail. Such specificity and decisiveness risked collapsing the innate social tensions from which the nations liberties ultimately flow.
This analysis of the roots of Israeli democracy also sheds new light on the nature of the countrys political system. It is true that there is no meaningful balance of power between the executive and legislative branches. But within the Knesset itself, nationally elected party lists, each representing a particular and usually well-defined subgroup of Israeli society, have proven incredibly effective at holding each other in check, a skill helped by the fact that no group is large enough to wield power alone.
While it is true, as noted above, that the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty can be overturned by a simple majority in the Knesset plenum, that fragility on paper can blind us to the remarkable resilience of Israelis rights: at the end of the day, the basic law has not been overturned. Too many camps in this fraught tapestry of a society see in the law a defense of their own rights, and so will not join any coalition that seeks to overturn it.
Israels is a pragmatic democratic tradition, where democracy is seen as a solution to a specific and longstanding problem of social division and mutual dependence. It is more often viewed by Israelis as a mechanism for ensuring Jewish solidarity and survival than as a moral imperative in its own right.
The missing left
Beneath the demagoguery of the rights purposefully offensive bills and the lefts self-righteous howls of oppression there is a second conversation as profound as any in Israels history.
Many of the activists in groups such as Breaking the Silence and BTselem are engaged in an explicit challenge to this Israeli notion of democracy. For them, and for many others on the editorial pages of Haaretz or the rallies of the Hadash or Meretz parties, democracy has come to mean almost exactly the opposite of what most Israelis understand by the term: it is the act of defying the Israeli Jewish ethos of solidarity.
The far-left blames that ethos for the paralysis of Israeli politics on the most painful issues the country faces, from the continued denial of religious liberty to the continued occupation of the Palestinians. Faced with these injustices, some of them only on paper and some of them very real indeed, these activists have little patience for accidental Israeli freedoms that flow from inchoate social compromises.
They want explicit legal protections, constitutionally articulated liberalism and a universalist civic politics to replace the nationalist sensibilities that today drive the Israeli body politic.
It is not hard to understand why they cause such furor in Israel, or why they are so reviled. For their opponents, especially on the right, this effort to dismantle Jewish solidarity amounts to criticizing the very fact of Jewish survival and the deepest wellspring of Israeli democracy. Solidarity, not liberalism, saved the Jews of Israel from the murderous vicissitudes of the 20th century. Solidarity, not liberalism, lies at the root of both Jewish national independence and Israeli domestic liberties. For many Israelis, those who would shift the foundations of Israeli politics away from that solidarity are in an important sense dislodged from the Israeli experience.
That their NGOs are mostly funded by foreign governments, that so much of their advocacy is focused abroad indeed, that they are so influential overseas despite being so utterly marginal at home only reinforces this view. It is no accident that the right, via the NGO bill and other measures, focuses its energies on this estrangement, and not on the content of these activists criticism.
This branch of the left cannot win this fight, not because it is wrong there is no claim being made here about which side is morally superior but because its defiance of the underlying ethos of Israeli Jewish solidarity drives it inevitably away from the very body politic it seeks to change.
This is why so many on the left find it so hard to defend groups such as Breaking the Silence, and thus are unable to mount an effective counter-campaign against the right.
In December, retired IDF major general Amiram Levin took out an ad in Haaretz defending Breaking the Silence, in which he insisted that soldiers must be encouraged to speak out without fear about their experiences in the West Bank, and to do so both in the IDF and in Israeli society.
He then added in parentheses the very presence of parentheses in such an ad speaks volumes (and only in the IDF and Israeli society).
Former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin expressed similar sentiments in a Facebook post that month, praising soldiers who come forward with their moral qualms, and praising Breaking the Silence, even if they can make us angry, even if they are sometimes inaccurate or not doing their jobs correctly, as providing an important mirror to our actions.
He then took the trouble to note: I dont like their activity abroad.
Neither Levin nor Diskin was defending Breaking the Silence. They were defending the act of dissent. They felt it important to note in their defenses of the group that they actually shared the rights criticism of it. That they nevertheless chose to publish those defenses speaks to a larger fear: that what Breaking the Silence is doing right encouraging IDF combat veterans to tell their experiences could become conflated with what they believe Breaking the Silence is doing wrong its abandonment of Israeli solidarity for foreign shores. It is hard to think of a more damning critique of Israels far-left than these purported defenses.
And here lies the danger for Sokatch, for opposition leader Isaac Herzog, and for anyone else who seeks to rehabilitate an Israeli left that has not won an election in 17 years. As a matter of political strategy, not merely of ethics, they cannot change Israel by scorning it. The lefts political prospects and with it, perhaps, Israeli democracy, for what is a democracy in which only one side can win elections? may be far more threatened by being identified with the far-lefts rejection of Israeli Jewish solidarity than by the grandstanding of any rightist lawmaker.
Israeli democracy cannot be taken for granted. But those who would slander it as weak and tottering, or seek to reshape it in their own image, owe it and us the courtesy of first judging it on its own terms.
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Israeli public debate is focused these days on a seemingly simple incident: In Hebron, two Palestinian terrorists attacked a team of Israel Defense Forces soldiers, managing to stab one of them before they themselves were shot. One terrorist was killed and the other injured. The latter was lying on the road when a soldier arrived, observed the scene and, without being commanded to do so, shot the terrorist once in the head. An autopsy, performed by Israeli forensic doctors in the presence of a Palestinian forensic doctor, revealed that that last shot was what killed the terrorist.
For more than 20 years now, I have been active in studying the military ethics of the IDF and in writing related documents such as the 1994 IDF Code of Ethics. I would like to make a few observations about the incident from that perspective.
The first thing to note is that the incident was immediately reported to the relevant IDF commanders, who at once conducted their routine debriefings. The professional military investigation was repeated several times along the chain of command, from the platoon and battalion level, through the brigade and division level, to the chief of staff. They all reached the conclusion that what the soldier had done was utterly wrong, in stark violation of commands, Rules of Engagement and the values specified in the Spirit of the IDF, the code of ethics that requires respect for human dignity (and especially human life) and restraint of force (or purity of arms, as its called in Hebrew).
At the core of military ethics in a democracy whether its the United States, United Kingdom, Canada or Israel you find two principles manifest in all doctrines, procedures, ROEs and commands. First, the right and duty of self-defense. A person and a state have the right to defend themselves when they are in jeopardy caused by unlawful activities of criminals or enemies. Plus, a democratic state has a duty to effectively defend its citizens when they are in such jeopardy. Second, every act of the state, including acts taken on its behalf by police or military, ought to show respect for human dignity. This means that compelling justification is needed for any significant interference in a persons situation.
Killing a person is a last resort in self-defense and it ought to be confined to circumstances of necessity. It is ethically, morally and legally wrong to kill a person if it is not a necessary step of self-defense.
The soldier in Hebron killed a terrorist, but what he did was not a necessary step of self-defense. It was not a step of self-defense at all.
The military investigation found that before the soldier shot the terrorist, he said that the terrorist had injured an IDF comrade and therefore ought to be killed. Such reasoning is utterly wrong, whether it is meant to justify retaliation, punishment, deterrence or what have you.
The circumstances of the Hebron incident have often been misunderstood. Yes, the terrorist was an enemy, but soldiers are required to treat a terrorist wielding a knife as a criminal, not as an enemy in a battlefield. The terrorists attempt to kill or injure ought to be foiled, but killing him is sanctioned only if there is no effective alternative only if its a last resort.
Nevertheless, the minister of internal security, several members of the Knesset and many participants in public debates took another view of the circumstances: Anyone who intends to kill or injure Jews as an act of jihad should know that he or she wont come out alive. This is a wrong and pernicious view. Major General Eizenkot, the IDF chief of staff, correctly said a while ago that there is no justification for emptying a magazine on a girl holding scissors she intends to use against some Jewish passerby. Even an injured enemy combatant who has just killed your comrades ought to be captured and then appropriately treated, because he no longer endangers anybodys life and he is a person whose human dignity should now be protected by ordinary means. We dont kill POWs, who are enemy professional combatants; all the more so, we dont kill terrorists once theyve been rendered harmless.
The public debate that followed the Hebron incident spotlighted two aspects of life in Israel that should not be ignored.
First, most of the Israeli public became aware of the Hebron incident by watching a video produced by a Palestinian photographer working with the radical left organization BTselem. This immediately created a wrong impression: that the soldier had been condemned by the IDF chief of staff and the minister of defense solely on the grounds of a piece of radical left propaganda. The mistaken idea that an NGO that has often cooperated with enemies of Israel in international campaigns against the IDF could play a role in forming the views of the head of the IDF and minister of defense enraged many Israelis, not just those on the extreme right. The political tensions within Israeli society are strong and significant, but their manifestation often rests on mistakes and misunderstandings, coming out noisy and crude.
Second, public debate in Israel has for a while now been an arena of vitriolic political clashes instead of a theater of ordinary exchange on political matters. Israeli politicians, and therefore the media and the public as well, act as if we are in an election period, though we are not. The inclination to make every incident into the subject of a quarrel, the tendency to use harsh language in portrayals of political opponents and their views, and the resort to rude, irresponsible and even irrational expressions in every social network are all unhealthy. It is the duty of state leaders to get rid of them.
This tumult may give the impression that something has gone astray in the ethical fabric of Israeli society and even within the IDF. That impression is false. No one incident, grave as it may be, indicates a widespread weakness. The IDF and many other parts of Israeli society are morally strong and resilient; they will overcome terrorist activities, on the one hand, and marginal failures to maintain high ethical standards, on the other.
Asa Kasher is Laura Schwarz-Kipp Professor Emeritus of Professional Ethics and Philosophy of Practice at Tel Aviv University, and Professor of Philosophy at Shalem Academic Center in Jerusalem. He led the writing of the IDFs code of ethics, and won the Israel Prize in General Philosophy in 2000.
Abbas has used the dirtiest words: Peace with Israel. Abbas, of course, was speaking to the Israeli public, and not to his own people. He has always sent a conciliatory message to Israelis, but this is the same Abbas who whips his people into a frenzy by telling them that Jews are “defiling the Aqsa Mosque with their filthy feet,” and the same Abbas whose media and officials glorify Palestinians who murder Israelis.
Abbas has only himself to blame for this morass. Like other Palestinian leaders, Abbas has become hostage to his own anti-Israel poison.
Perhaps this time, the international community can hear the truth: the Palestinian leadership does not educate the Palestinian people for peace with Israel. That is the real obstacle to peace.
Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas is reaping what he has sown. He is facing a firestorm calling for his resignation or overthrow.
The Palestinians are not up in arms about Abbas’s eleventh year of a four-year term in office. They really do not seem to care about that, especially as long as he is paying salaries.
Most Palestinians are not objecting to his dictatorial rule, or staunch refusal to bring democracy and public freedoms to the Palestinians. Nor is he under attack for failing to implement reforms in the Palestinian Authority, or to combat financial and administrative corruption.
No, the trouble stems from a different corner entirely. Abbas has used the dirtiest words: Peace with Israel.
Let us put things into perspective. This is the same Abbas who over the past six months has remained silent in the face of the new “knife intifada”; the same Abbas who whips his people into a frenzy by telling them that Jews are “defiling the Aqsa Mosque with their filthy feet,” and the same Abbas whose media and officials glorify Palestinians who murder Israelis.
The whole problem exploded when Abbas told Israel’s Channel 2 TV station that his security forces in the West Bank have been entering schools and searching students’ bags for knives. “In one school, we found 70 students with knives, and we told them that this was wrong,” Abbas said. “I told them I do not want to kill someone or die; I want you to live, and for others to live too.” He went on to say that he wants peace with Israel and is ready to meet with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Abbas, of course, was speaking to the Israeli public, and not to his own people. He has always sent a conciliatory message to Israelis — leaving the truth with blood on it for his Arabic-speaking audiences.
A few days earlier, Abbas seemed to have committed another “crime” when he told Druze leaders who visited him in his office in Ramallah that his hand would continue to be extended for peace with Israel. He even went as far as declaring that that he “rejected violence and terrorism.”
In yet a further “provocative” move on the part of Abbas, he received in his office a delegation representing the World Federation of Moroccan Jews. At the meeting, Abbas once again discussed his desire for peace, saying he was seeking to “end hostility and bloodshed between us.”
By granting an interview to an Israeli TV station, Abbas was defying instructions from his loyalists in the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate. In February, the syndicate decided to boycott any Palestinian official who gives an interview to Israeli reporters or media organizations.
The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, which is dominated by members of Abbas’s ruling Fatah faction, did not publicly condemn the interview with the Israeli TV station. They have better judgment than that. Privately, however, Palestinian journalists and political activists in Ramallah expressed outrage over their president’s “collaboration” with Israeli media in defiance of the ban.
The meeting with the Moroccan Jews also infuriated some Palestinians, who rushed to accuse Abbas of acting against the instructions of the “anti-normalization” movement in the Palestinian territories. This movement has long worked to foil meetings between Israelis and Palestinians; its supporters have not hesitated to use violence to stop such encounters from taking place. Even soccer matches between Israeli and Palestinian children are considered unacceptable by this extremist movement, which, ironically, also consists of Abbas loyalists.
Yet what really caused the outcry was the talk of peace. Without it, the interview and the meeting with the Moroccans might have been quietly condemned. Apparently, discussing searching schoolchildren’s bags for knives was considered “over the top.”
Verbal attacks against Abbas are not only coming from his political enemies, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Some are coming from his own supporters in Fatah and the PLO.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the second largest faction of the PLO after Fatah, has called for Abbas’s immediate resignation.
Accusing him of having “crossed all red lines,” the PFLP said that Abbas’s remarks to the “enemy’s TV station” prove that the Palestinian Authority continues to conduct security coordination with Israel.
The PFLP, which denounced Abbas’s remarks as “despicable,” said that if Abbas does not step down, then the PLO leadership should hold a meeting to remove him from power and hold him accountable for his statements and actions.
Palestinians also took to social media to denounce their president for his remarks, with some joking that it could have been because of April Fool’s Day. Abbas was mocked as a liar and a hypocrite.
Abbas has only himself to blame for this morass. In the last months, he and the PA leadership have been inciting their people against Israel through the media and public rhetoric. Forget what they say in English: in Arabic, many of the Palestinian leaders talk of death to the Israelis.
Like other Palestinian leaders, Abbas has become hostage to his own anti-Israel poison. He has now had some feedback from his people on how well he has taught them. The answer: very well indeed.
Perhaps this time, the international community will hear the truth: the Palestinian leadership does not educate the Palestinian people for peace with Israel. That is the real obstacle to peace.
Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist, is based in Jerusalem.