Rumors of the Death of Israeli Democracy Are Greatly Exaggerated

April 5, 2016 | Haviv Rettig Gur
About the author: Haviv Rettig Gur is the senior analyst for the Times of Israel.

It’s by now a familiar story: a right-wing Knesset member proposes a bill taking away the de-facto status of Arabic as an official language or requiring greater transparency from non-governmental organizations; left-wing parliamentarians denounce such moves as undermining Israeli democracy; the New Israel Fund declares that only the left can retard Israel’s otherwise inevitable slide into authoritarianism. Yet, notes Haviv Rettig Gur, the demonized bills, if they are brought to a vote at all, have a tendency to be defeated, usually by wide margins—and several times Benjamin Netanyahu has been the one to persuade the bill’s sponsors to withdraw their proposals. Gur explains:

In the end, the debate about Israel, both at home and among those overseas who take their cues from Israel’s domestic politics, is driven by the faux stridency of powerless demagogues, by rightists who propose unpassable bills to draw out the wrath of the left and so distinguish themselves in a crowded field—and by leftists who simply have too much to gain from their hand-wringing, [whether in courting] foreign funders [or] mobilizing an ethos of victimhood, to subject it to any measure of self-criticism.

Or, put another way, the frenetic rhetorical contest between left and right is essentially a media event, not a policy debate. . . . These bills are intended as press releases, and it is no accident that their numbers usually swell in the run-up to right-wing primaries. They are not meant to pass. Lawmakers who propose them do not expect to find themselves [held accountable] for the results of their passage. Israel’s far-left activists, who are often at the center of these left-right skirmishes, know all this—at least when they are speaking in Hebrew.

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