Israel: With democracy like this, who needs dictators?

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JERUSALEM — Israelis like to point out that theirs is the only democracy in a Middle East otherwise dominated by repressive regimes. Given the performance of legislators in the parliamentary session that just ended here, you might be forgiven for asking: with democracy like this, who needs dictators?

The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, broke up last week for its summer vacation. The speaker of the Knesset, Reuven Rivlin, sent lawmakers on their way with an interview in an Israeli newspaper in which he described them as “pathetic.” Several human rights organizations slammed as dangerous to democracy more than a dozen bills that passed preliminary readings. The most abiding image of the session was surely the gang of right-wing legislators heckling and threatening a female Arab parliamentarian who had been aboard a Turkish ship intercepted by Israeli commandos en route for Gaza.

In a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, Debbie Gild-Hayo, director of policy advocacy at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, complained of “14 dangerous draft bills” introduced to the departing parliament.

“The Knesset is supposed to be a bastion of democracy,” Gild-Hayo wrote. “It seems an increasing number of Members of Knesset believe that their job is to silence those who do not share their views.”

The most headlines were devoted to a confrontation between conservative legislators and Haneen Zoabi, the female Arab lawmaker. Zoabi was aboard one of the Turkish boats intercepted May 31 by Israeli troops, which resulted in nine dead among the activists on board. They were protesting the Israeli blockade of Gaza by trying to run it.

The Knesset voted two weeks ago to suspend Zoabi some parliamentary privileges. She called this an act of “revenge” for her participation in the seaborne protest. A right-wing Israeli lawmaker brandished an enlarged facsimile of an Iranian passport with Zoabi’s photo in it. (Zoabi has suggested that Iran should have nuclear weapons to balance Israel’s arsenal.)

Speaker Rivlin attacked the behavior of the legislators who tried to silence Zoabi. “We, as members of the Knesset, were chosen due to our beliefs,” he said. “I believe that everyone should have the right to speak their minds, even if it hurts me.”

It isn’t, of course, just the protest at sea that upsets conservative lawmakers. Zoabi's position on the future of Israel would be enough to raise their ire. She has declared herself in favor of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Alongside it, she calls for a reconfigured entity in what’s now Israel, which would be a binational state of all its citizens, rather than a Jewish state. In other words, the widely accepted two-state solution — except that neither state is Israel.

Zoabi is not the only Israeli passport holder whose loyalty is questioned by the Knesset. David Rotem of the nationalist Israel Our Home Party sponsored a bill that would require a loyalty oath for all citizens. Many among the 20 percent of Israelis who are Arab would balk at such an oath. Certainly their political leaders and many Jewish human rights groups do.

A National Union lawmaker put through a bill denying state funding for Israeli filmmakers who criticize the state. Israeli academics who support international moves for a boycott of the country’s universities would be sanctioned under a bill drawn up by a member of the ruling Likud Party.

Human rights groups are the target of another bill (from a member of the supposedly centrist Kadima Party) which would deny funding and legal status to organizations which help the prosecution of Israeli politicians and soldiers by foreign institutions. (That’s aimed at groups which highlight alleged war crimes by Israel, a practice that has led to fears Israeli leaders might be arrested in Europe.)

It isn’t all bad, of course. Leftist legislators passed a bill that would recycle shower, bath and laundry water, to save on drinking water in a country seemingly under permanent drought conditions. Restrictions were lifted from egg donation to childless couples, and it looks as though health insurance may be extended to the children of illegal immigrants and refugees.

Also, in a move that ought to be highlighted in the Vatican, the Knesset passed a bill allowing for the prosecution of rabbis who sexually abuse youngsters over whom they have spiritual authority.

If only the Knesset members cared as much for the abuse of temporal authority.