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Drawing the Line

The sad story about the election Israel will hold tomorrow is that, no matter what the precise results, the balance of power will be held by a group of legislators contemptuous of the principles of democracy. Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu … Read More

By / February 9, 2009

The sad story about the election Israel will hold tomorrow is that, no matter what the precise results, the balance of power will be held by a group of legislators contemptuous of the principles of democracy.

Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party seems almost certain to become the country’s third largest parliamentary faction and, as such, a member of whatever ruling coalition the new prime minister forms. Lieberman is not new to the Knesset and he has held cabinet portfolios, but with between 15 and 20 parliamentarians in his faction, he will be far more powerful than he has ever been before. Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni of Kadima and Ehud Barak of Labor already granted Lieberman legitimacy by agreeing to sit in a government with him, but in the new government he will possess both legitimacy and power. Press reports about Lieberman have focused on his promise to require Israel’s Arab citizens to sign a loyalty oath in order to preserve their citizenship. Stripping citizens of their rights because of their political views and ethnic origin is manifestly anti-democratic, but that’s hardly where it ends. Lieberman wants to strip Israel’s Supreme Court of its powers of judicial review and create a separate constitutional court to review legislation—a court whose members would be elected. This politicization of the constitutional process would endanger the rights of all of Israel’s minorities—not just Arabs, but religious, ethnic, and ideological minorities as well. Lieberman’s platform stresses good and effective government and may not sound so bad to American ears—but his rhetoric shows him to play as loose with the term “democracy” as did the Communist regimes of the late twentieth century. And it’s important to listen to the rhetoric—the country needs a strong man to solve its problems, investigative journalists are public nuisances, and what’s important is not law and procedure but “getting things done.” Overshadowed by Lieberman’s burgeoning popularity is another disturbing development on the Israeli far right. Ha-Ihud Ha-Le’umi—the National Union slate, composed of a couple extreme national-religious factions and one far-right secular party, is the home of the unrepentant advocates of Greater Israel and messianic nationalism. But in the past even this group had the decency to recognize that the acolytes of Meir Kahane and his outlawed Kach party were untouchables who should not be granted legitimacy. Kahane and Kach were boycotted by the rest of the political spectrum, even the right, precisely because Kahane declared unashamedly that he opposed democracy and the rule of law. This year, Ha-Ihud Ha-Le’umi has brought Kahane’s successor, Baruch Marzel, into the fold. And Marzel hasn’t changed—he still advocates the anti-democratic policies of his political and spiritual teacher. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, realized the importance of making a clear statement about what political parties could and could not be legitimate partners in government. His rule was “bli Herut ve-Maki”—that Menachem Begin’s Herut party (because of Begin’s contempt for the rule of law in the country’s early years) and Maki, the Communist party (because of its lockstep alignment with the Soviet Union), were not legitimate coalition partners. The place where Ben-Gurion drew the line is debatable—Begin, for all his love of military trappings and his attempts to incite mobs against the Knesset, eventually proved himself to be a committed democrat, and the Mapam party, which Ben-Gurion accepted as a partner, was in the early 1950s also subservient to the Soviets. But he was right that it’s important for democratic leaders to refuse to grant legitimacy to parties and figures who display contempt for the basic rules of the democratic process—which include the rule of law and the equal rights of all citizens. On Wednesday morning, Israel’s leaders will face a challenge. Will they be prepared to draw a clear line and say bli Yisrael Beitenu ve- Ha-Ihud Ha-Le’umi? Frankly, the prospects don’t look good.

Read more by Haim at South Jerusalem

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