Right-wing legislation stirs democracy debate in Israel

Fri Dec 16, 2011 5:07am EST
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By Allyn Fisher-Ilan

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Legislation promoted by right-wing lawmakers in Israel is raising concern that democratic values are under threat in a country that has long billed itself the only democracy in the Middle East.

One bill could potentially paralyze dovish Israeli advocacy groups by imposing sharp limits on funding they receive from foreign governments, while others could deal a blow to the independence of the Supreme Court, an institution seen in Israel as a watchdog over civil rights.

Nothing has been passed into law and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under international pressure to quash some of the measures proposed by members of his Likud party, has moved to stall one of the more controversial bills.

But critics of the legislation say damage to some democratic rights and the nation's image has already been done, pointing at three other laws passed in the past year widely seen as anti-Arab and attempts to quash dissent against government policy.

One of these laws already on the books would penalize Arab citizens for teaching about Israel's birth in 1948 as a "nakba," or catastrophe, allow courts to revoke citizenship of those charged with "terrorism" and ban calls to boycott Israel or any of its settlements built in occupied territory.

"Anyone who may have fallen into a coma during the period of McCarthyism in the United States might find himself quite comfortable these days in Israel," said Reuven Hazan, political scientist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, referring to one of the worst eras for political freedoms in America sparked by the hunt for Communist sympathizers led by Senator Joseph McCarthy.

"This is an attack on the democratic nature of the state," Hazan said.

Backers of the latest legislative initiatives which seek to severely restrict funding for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) say the money received largely from abroad permits foreign interference in Israel's internal affairs.   Continued...