Bibi breaks ranks with rightwing on ‘political inquisition,’ but don’t hold your breath

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Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has now publicly expressed his opposition to two highly partisan Yisrael Beitenu-intiated bills that threaten to further undermine Israeli democracy and the automony of Israeli human rights groups, though the PM says he won’t ask the rest of Likud to follow his lead.

The refusal to enforce party discipline over this legislation suggests that the PM is looking to repeat his anti-BDS strategy: support the legislation in spirit, but not actually risk his position by casting a vote for or against it.

The first bill would effectively allow the government to perform inquisitions (branded blandly as “committees of inquiry”) on human rights groups that do not meet (right-wing) standards for “fairness” and “national security.” The second bill would give a Yisrael Beitenu-dominated Knesset committee unprecedented say in the appointment of supreme court judges. Both bills are to be voted on later this week.

Speaking at an assembly to honor the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Former Soviet Union (FJC), the PM said that the “committees of inquiry” Yisrael Beitenu’s nonprofit “transparency” bill would establish are not necessary.

Netanyahu has also expressed his opposition to the Yisrael Beitenu-sponsored judicial appointments bill that would reduce the independence of the judiciary by granting veto powers to a Knesset committee (a committee is currently dominated by Yisrael Beitenu KMs).

According to Haaretz, some Likud KMs expressed concern over the legislation and told the PM that they will not vote for it, prompting Netanyahu to disavow the need for Likud to vote as a bloc on the legislation.

Yet all is not well in the coalition. Foreign Minister Lieberman, the head of Yisrael Beitenu, who also supported (but declined to vote on) the anti-BDS law, has reiterated his support for his party’s legislation. He, and other Yisrael Beitenu KMs, now say that the party will break ranks with Likud in the coming weeks if the PM refuses to enforce party discipline.

But, don’t let this tiff of the titans fool you into thinking a split is developing between the PM and his far-right coalition partners. Haaretz suggests that part of this spat is a matter of pride – Yisrael Beitenu wants to score one (well, two) for the right after the passage of the anti-BDS law.

Indeed, but this disagreement between the PM and the Foreign Minister is more likely a case of the political right wanting to have their cake and eat it too, leaving the dirty work (and the electoral risk) to the far-right politicians who are quite comfortable with “fighting” against “Leftist bias” (to paraphrase the bills’ sponsors) in Israel today.

Then again, I don’t know what goes on in Bibi’s mind. Maybe the PM is sincerely squeamish about supporting a bill whose opponents, including some Likud KMs, are comparing to McCarthyism and Stalinist show trials.

And Lieberman, for his part, may be as much concerned about the survival prospects for the bills (JPost says that without Likud’s declared support, both bills will probably not become law next week) as he is piqued that the PM has not backed these pet projects.

That the PM chose to announce his opposition to the bills at the FJC event is telling, though, of the balancing act he is trying to perform – hold onto the far-right, but maintain the appearance of a centrist and elder statesman.

Yisrael Beitenu, after all, draws much of its support from Russian Jews, particularly those who entered Israel after the dissolution of the USSR. And the FJC serves as a support network for this constituency. The PM must be concerned about alienating voters from the former USSR (as this demographic is already alienated within Israeli society). Yisrael Beitenu, sometimes labeled “the party of Russian Jewry,” was founded in 1999 in response to that alienation and proved to be a “kingmaker” for Netanyahu in 2009.

But at the moment, Yisrael Beitenu is not happy with the PM. The sponsor of the nonprofit “transparency” bill, KM Faina Kirschenbaum, says that Likud is “sacrificing essential security interests, their obligation to their voters and their nationalist values in order to find favor with the Leftist media.” Yisrael Beitenu spokespersons say that Likud “will pay for it in the next elections” if Likud doesn’t back these bills (especially the one to have inquiries of human rights groups – of the two bills, it is the one Yisrael Beitenu wants to pass the most).

In her remarks, Kirschenbaum also reasserted that the purpose of both bills is to “struggle against organizations that support terror directly or indirectly and harm IDF soldiers and the state of Israel’s right to defend itself.” Lieberman has reiterated these points even more forcefully: “these are not left-wing and human rights organizations, but terror groups and terror supporters,” he said, refering to the passengers of the Freedom Flotilla ship Mavi Marmara (on which nine civlians were killed by the IDF in May 2010) as well the human rights groups Adalah, Yesh Din and Breaking the Silence.

Given the potential these bills have to stifle alternative viewpoints and paint any critics as terrorist supporters, it is not surprising that opponents of the bills are alluding to Stalin in their criticisms.

And not without good cause. A chilling, even paranoiac, climate seems to be descending on Israel these days. Yesh Din said in a statement that “Lieberman’s methods are reminiscent of methods developed by dark regimes to deal with anyone who got caught speaking out against the regime.”

The Israeli right has, of course, been emboldened by successes against their critics and the strong showing of support in the U.S. political establishment for their uncompromising position towards the settlements.

But the right is also gravely concerned by the growing strength of their critics, as well as the “Arab Spring” that deposed Mubarak and threatens the Syrian regime (no love lost there, but, better the devil you know than the devil you don’t).

Put together the fear of defeat and the taste of victory, and you have an unpleasant cold front descending over Israeli civil society (not to mention Palestinian society, though it’s more of a hot zone on their end).

On the general direction that democrcy and human rights are heading in Israel, though, I will let Bibi speak his peace. According to Ynet:

“[Netanyahu] said [in response to Lieberman] that “we have always been and will always be the only law-abiding democracy in the Middle East, which maintains human rights.” He quickly added, “Of course I hope this will change, but this is the current situation.”

I think the Israeli right would agree with you on that, Mr. Prime Minister!

About Paul Mutter

Paul Mutter is a contributor to Mondoweiss, Foreign Policy in Focus and the Arabist.

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