Shrinking Democratic Space in Israel
November 2018 update
In recent years, Israel has been undergoing a process of "shrinking democratic space." All the elements that make up a vibrant democratic regime are under attack and threatened with reduced status and power. The government, which also controls the Knesset (Israel's parliament), is leading a two-fold attack on democracy: one, an ongoing and gradual erosion of the various components of democracy, mainly by way of legislation; and two, a very effective delegitimization campaign against these same entities, including verbal attacks and smear campaigns, which ultimately change the public's perceptions of democracy, human rights and the protection of minorities. Among the bodies whose status and legitimacy are eroding are the following:
1. All law enforcement agencies in Israel - the police, the State Attorney's Office and the Attorney General, and the courts, especially in the context of investigations on the prime minister or those close to him;
2. The Supreme Court and the judicial system - those bodies responsible for the rule of law and human rights, and for judicial review of the government's actions;
3. The Arab minority and their representatives in the Knesset.
4. Anybody that criticizes the government and the agenda it promotes – the President, Members of the Knesset, the State Comptroller, The Chief of the General Staff, General Commissioner of the Israel Police, political rivals ("the Left");
5. The press in general and specific journalists;
6. Civil society organizations and human rights organizations dealing with controversial issues (primarily the Occupation, human rights in the Occupied Territories, refugees, Jewish pluralism).
In addition, in the era of "new politics" and "fake news," we are witnessing changes in the political culture that negatively impact Israeli democracy. The tactics of intimidation and incitement increase racism and tyranny of the majority in Israel, as well as the disrespect for the rights and positions of the minority. Concepts related to democracy and human rights have taken on new, anti-democratic meanings (for example, democracy interpreted as majority rule). As a result, the ruling majority has strengthened whilst the system of checks-and-balances has weakened. At the same time, popular attitudes vis-à-vis democracy and human rights have adversely changed, in addition to an increasingly restricted pluralism and reduced freedom of expression.
The following lists the main anti-democratic initiatives that were recently promoted or are currently being promoted in Israel. For a more comprehensive list, click here.
1. Harming gatekeepers of democracy
•The High Court of Justice (HCJ) - The HCJ in Israel also serves as a constitutional court. The government has waged a virulent delegitimization campaign against the HCJ, branding it as liberal and leftist, and as a body that harms the advancement of the government's agenda.
For several years, and even more recently, government officials have been trying to promote an “Override Clause.” Should the HCJ disqualify any legislation as unconstitutional, then the Knesset will be able to reenact the legislation, by a regular majority for a period of several years. In addition, there have been a number of proposals in recent years whose aim is to increase the government's power at the expense of the HCJ, some of which have passed (for example, changing the seniority system, increasing political involvement in appointments), while others have not passed but enhance the de-legitimization of the court and other democratic players (such as, restricting the right of standing).
•Law Enforcement Agencies - In addition to verbal attacks, a number of legislative amendments have been enacted in recent years regarding law enforcement agencies, including a law prohibiting the police from publishing its recommendations for prosecution at the end of an investigation.
•Damage to the separation of powers - Government members seek to promote legislation that would reduce the powers of the State Comptroller. Legislation is currently being promoted to change the system of appointing legal advisers to government ministries, such that they will become political appointees serving first the ministers rather than the rule of law and human rights. Other initiatives include changing the president's authority to choose who will form the government.
•Damage to the media - Several years ago, new legislation on public broadcasting, which increased government involvement, was passed. Beyond that, there is an active de-legitimization campaign against the media and some journalists when they criticize the government, its policies, or the Prime Minister.
2. Infringement of fundamental rights and harming minorities
•Legislation that adversely affects the Arab minority - Two main laws that have recently passed: the Nation-State Law gives priority to the Jewish characteristics of the state over democracy and, above all, equality; and the law for the removal of MKs, which effectively enables a majority to expel an MK from the political minority from the Knesset.
•Infringement of freedom of expression – One of the legislative initiatives being promoted is the "Loyalty in Culture" Law. A continuation of the recently enacted "Nakba Law", the law would allow ministers to disqualify government funding of institutions that express political positions contrary to the political majority. The recent "Breaking the Silence Law" allows the Minister of Education to deny entry to schools to those organizations whose activities are deemed contrary to educational goals; the law leaves much room for political interpretation. The "Boycott Law" allows filing a lawsuit against anyone who calls for a boycott. Another law prevents entry to Israel for anyone calling for a boycott. Additionally, more recently we are witnessing Israelis being delayed by the authorities at the country's borders as they are investigated for their positions and political activities.
•Attack on pluralism: Gender segregation and exclusion of women from public sphere; the elimination of the Western Wall Outline; restricting entry to ritual baths (mikveh) to Orthodox Jews; conversion only by the Orthodox establishment; restricting alternative kashrut certification; separation of genders in schools; academia, and in the general public sphere; giving priority to Jewish Law.
3. Legislation and delegitimization of civil society organizations
•Legislation against civil society organizations (CSO) and their de-legitimization – A serious de-legitimization campaign has been waged against those civil society organizations whose activities the government does not approve of. So far, two pieces of legislation were passed that brand organizations that receive funding from foreign entities as a kind of foreign agent working in the service of others, under the guise of "transparency." Moreover, right-wing activists demand that the government restrict their representatives from participating in any conferences and events of "leftist" CSO's. This has resulted in the representatives of organizations or government representatives cancelling their participation in many events.
Click here for a more comprehensive list of Anti-Democratic legislation.