JERUSALEM — Israel has been gripped by an unprecedented wave of conservative legislative activism, with a flurry of bills presented to parliament last month that have put into question long-held social conventions.
The frenzy reached such heights that President Shimon Peres, a nominal head of state who usually refrains from all comment on political matters, decided to speak out.
“These proposals deviate from the basis of democracy," he told a youth group this week. “A government is not elected to rule, but to serve. Every leader must be measured in one way: Is he serving us or are we serving him? I urge all elected officials — if you want to serve then you must serve the entire public.”
One bill would tax or otherwise monitor donations made by foreign governments to Israeli nongovernmental organizations, which would be a death nail for many left-leaning agencies. Another would significantly change the definition of libel, and the penalty if found guilty.
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Another, now nixed, would have dramatically changed the manner in which Supreme Court candidates were nominated and examined. Still another would have required people requesting citizenship or residency to make an oath of loyalty to the “Nation State of the Jewish People,” which a non-Jewish person might find onerous.
While some of the bills will never make it beyond legislative oblivion, there is a widespread feeling among Israeli analysts and members of the intelligentsia that an essential, pluralistic and equitable, part of the national character is under attack.
By early in the week, the activist spurt was threatening to tear apart the Likud, the right-wing party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. At the opening of a recent cabinet meeting, Netanyahu was forced to clarify that he would oppose a bill sponsored by two members of his own party, which proposed to limit the public’s ability to file appeals to the Supreme Court, a limitation previously inconceivable in the Israeli polity, in which the right to such petitions is considered close to sacred.
Netanyahu said he “objects” to any bill that might limit the independence of Israel's courts. Netanyahu’s comments followed those made by two other Likud members, Benny Begin, a member of parliament and son of former prime minister Menachem Begin, and deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, who also serves as Minister of Intelligence and Atomic Energy, who announced in a television interview that he would resign were the bill to pass into law.
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“There won't be a single day in which a law such as this exists and I am still in the cabinet," Meridor said.
Amnon Rubinstein, a professor of law at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and a former minister of education representing the left-wing Meretz party said, “It is definitely a spate of privately sponsored bills that are either absurd or really dangerous.”
Rubinstein pointed to the proposed loyalty oath, presented in parliament by Avi Dichter, a member of the center-right Kadima party, as a particularly dodgy proposition.
The bill establishing a levy upon donations received by Israeli nongovernmental organizations from foreign governments, international organizations and para-governmental entities could have a devastating effect upon non-profit groups working for left-wing causes, opponents of the bill have argued.
For example, even while struggling with its own major economic crisis, Spain’s Foreign Cooperation Agency is the principal funder for an aid group representing former Israeli soldiers who oppose the occupation of the West Bank.
“Most human rights organizations in Israel cannot survive without these donations,” said Moshe Negbi, legal affairs analyst for Israel Radio. He cites as examples two Israeli aid agencies that will not survive if foreign donations are cut — Doctors for Human Rights and The New Israel Fund, which itself disperses funds that support about 50 percent of human rights organizations in Israel.
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“As it is written it clearly takes aim at left-wing organizations and does not address the private donations being given to the right,” Rubinstein said. “If the bill contained an equivalency taxing for all donations coming from abroad, I think that would be OK.”
Not all Israelis see the proposed bill as a threat to the national character. Avi Bell, a professor of law at Bar Ilan University disputes the very notion.
“Is this really right-wing legislative activism? You have to have a very undiscerning eye to see it that way. Media reports are mixing together a whole lot of proposals and laws that are coming from different quarters that have nothing to do with one another and that have been discussed before. Some will pass and some not; some originate from the opposition and some from the government. What is interesting for me is the media frenzy in which they are seen as a trend when they don’t constitute a trend,” he said.
Although the practice by foreign governments of donating to non-profit organizations abroad is not illegal, some Israelis worry that it interferes, and even undermines, Israel’s sovereignty.
“There’s a long-term involvement which I see as illegitimate — to interfere in Israeli politics not by diplomatic persuasion but by direct financial involvement with 'astrotrurf' groups,’” he said, referring to “fake grassroots groups.”
Yigal Palmor, the foreign ministry spokesman, said the issue has not become a priority in Israeli diplomatic contacts “as a matter of government policy.”
“The government has decided to go ahead with legislation and address this problem as an internal issue. There’s no reason for now to turn it into a diplomatic issue. Whether that will change in the future, I don’t know,” he said.