In Israel, raft of new laws shows rise of the right

A spate of right-wing legislation is picking up supporters in the Israeli public, frustrated with uncertainty and their international isolation.

By , Correspondent

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    Avigdor Lieberman, once dismissed as a far-right firebrand, now has growing appeal. Israelis are increasingly drawn to his unambiguous – if controversial – leadership.
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Critics say Israel is forsaking its democratic ideals with a right-wing agenda.

Avishai Amir, a former spokesman in the left-wing Labor government of the 1990s, begs to differ.

Take the recent nakba law, for example, which bans public funding for groups that mark Israel's independence day as Palestinians do: by declaring the creation of the Jewish state to be a nakba, Arabic for "catastrophe."

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"The law says that the state of Israel won't pay money for demonstrations against it. That's it. It's not a law against democracy," says Mr. Amir, who has shifted from left to center. "I don't want my taxes to finance a demonstration against me.... Should I pay because [the Palestinians] didn't agree to set up a country then? I have to pay because I won and they're sad?"

McCarthyism or a 'necessary bulwark?'

Critics have cast the spate of new legislation as a McCarthyist tactic that threatens the protection of minorities and free speech afforded by Western democracies. But a growing number of Israelis increasingly see such measures as a necessary bulwark against those who would undermine Israel – from without or within.

Israel faces volatile times: It has had four national elections in a decade, and is now surrounded by Arab countries in unprecedented turmoil. It faces an increasingly powerful Iran, and it fears growing isolation as a result of a Palestinian statehood recognition.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieber­man, whose party and its allies are spearheading the legislation, excels at projecting the strength and unambiguous leadership some Israelis seek in response to such uncertainty.

"There is insecurity, even though we have the strongest army and the strongest air force," says Amir. "There is insecurity about the geopolitical situation in general because the Arab Spring hasn't brought us anything."

Though he does not support Mr. Lieberman, Amir understands – and fears – his political appeal: "People want to hear a clear melody. They want politicians who give them only one side [of the situation]."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, concerned about losing his base to an increasingly powerful rival, has been either unwilling or unable to counter the influence of such leaders, say analysts.

"I want to believe it is not an evil Netanyahu, it is a weak Netanyahu who doesn't have the guts to stand up to Lieberman," says Ari Shavit, a columnist at the liberal Haaretz newspaper. "While Netanyahu was supposed to be a Reagan, he is gradually turning into a Sarah Palin. Instead of the Likud being a respectable GOP, it is deteriorating into a tea party."

'If you give less, you should get less'

To be sure, Mr. Netanyahu challenged Lieberman over a proposed parliamentary investigation of human rights groups associated with the left. But Lieberman and his allies in Netanyahu's Likud party have pushed through several other laws in addition to the nakba measure. (See box.)

"What the party is saying is that everyone who gives something to the society and the state is the one who gets from the state," says Eli Nacht, a parliamentary aide for Lieberman's ultra­nationalist Yisrael Beytenu party. "If you give less, you should get less."

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel decried the nakba bill as a "serious injury" to free political expression and part of an effort at "political persecution and delegitimization of an entire group of citizens in Israel."

But such views are increasingly in the minority. A recent poll by the Yediot Ahronot newspaper found that 52 percent of Israeli Jews supported the boycott law, for example.

The laws have wide appeal because they tap into frustration over the growing international isolation of Israel as the alleged culprit in the Gaza war and the breakdown of peace talks with Palestinians.

Mainstream Israelis are angry at human rights groups whose reports were cited in the United Nations' Goldstone report, which accused Israel's army of war crimes in the 2009 Gaza war. Others are offended by groups that support the Palestinian boycott of Israeli settlements.

Life under siege

Israelis are also anxious about international pressure and boycotts after the UN's expected recognition of Palestinian statehood in September.

"Israelis are living two forms of siege," says Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. "There's the siege on our borders from Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran. And there's the more subtle siege of delegitimizing Israel in the community of nations. When Israelis see fellow Israelis advocate the boycott of their own country, that is understood as an act of treason."

Some argue that legislation aimed at countering that international siege will work against Israel by undermining its democratic credentials. Even some prominent members of Likud, such as parliament speaker Reuven Rivlin, have assailed the laws.

But Lieberman leads a party that represents part of a coalition of right-wing constituencies for whom liberal democratic values are not as strongly rooted. In addition to immigrants from the former Soviet Union like Lieberman, the coalition includes religious settlers and ultra-Orthodox, whose rabbis value religious laws over the secular state.

"They all come out of a value tradition or a political culture that does not view democracy as the ultimate or exclusive value," says Sam Lehman Wilzig, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.

But don't write off Israel's democracy just yet, cautions Mr. Shavit.

"Don't be hasty in judging the Israeli public. It shifts ground in many ways," says the Haaretz columnist. "I still have hope in the silent Israeli majority.... We are a young democracy; we have many problems ... but fundamentally we are a free society."

Controversial new laws

• Israelis who participate in a boycott against Israel or Israeli settlements could face lawsuits or be forced to pay compensation of up to $10,000 or both.

• Convicted spies can be stripped of their citizenship.

• Groups that mark Israel's independence day as the Palestinian day of "catastrophe," or nakba, will lose public funding.

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