Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Rumors Of Israeli Democracy's Death Are Premature

In the wake of the Knesset's passing of an anti-boycott bill, many in the policy blogosphere and Twitterverse have decried the "death of Israeli democracy" or see the bill as a turning point in the erosion of civil rights in Israel. While debate over the contentious bill is well-founded, this bill in and of itself is not the doomsday legislation many contend it is. Here's why:

1) Legislatures are often reactionary. Many legislatures, including the US Congress, are apt to play on the fear of their constituents rather than the principles of good policy-making since they are incentivized by reelection. Those who execute foreign policy, on the other hand, are often more cautious since they bear responsibility for dealing with the costs. Democracies are designed to withstand these competing pressures. Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak did not appear for yesterday's vote, and there is a good reason why. Dissociating from the debate over the bill curbs the international political costs the legislation has already incurred. But it also indicates that the Israeli leadership understands that the international community will find this law's limitation on freedom of expression problematic. The situation is less ideal than an active "no" vote, but is hardly the death of democracy.

2) Impactful legislation introduces instability into parliaments. One of the reasons progress has been slow in Israel is that if the Prime Minister introduces impactful legislation, he runs a high political cost for doing so. Opposition parties thrive on opposing such legislation, and radical hardliners make accusations that the Prime Minister does not support such legislation enough. The bottom line is that maintaining stability in a parliament while making drastic political changes is difficult. A parliament may very well pass a series of bills which harm democracy, but each bill raises the chance the government will fall. As a result of the anti-boycott bill, Prime Minister Netanyahu will face an even more precarious balancing act than before. Leftist parties will decry his "fascist government" while right wing parties will accuse him of not being invested enough in the right-wing agenda to vote on the measure. This is parliamentary democracy at work.

3) The law is controversial, even in Israel. Speaking in the Knesset yesterday, Meretz MK Ilan Gila'on called the bill "Black Dysentery" and "an affront to Israeli democracy." The legislation did not only take heat from the far left. MK Shlomo Molla from the centrist Kadima party mocked the state of Israeli democracy created by the bill. In addition, Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner questioned the legality of the bill and called it "a violation of the core tenet of freedom of expression." While the bill ultimately passed, it did so only after six hours of debate, and already faces a number of legal challenges from Israeli human rights organizations. These reactions are consistent with democratic society, even if they are being triggered by a bill which some argue limits freedom in the first place.

While the content of this legislation - and similar legislation - may be concerning, these laws are being passed in a political context which, at least for now, remains democratic. The fact that Israel has garnered so much criticism in the first 24 hours of the bill's passage indicates that despite the pessimism of pundits, Israel is still being held to the standards of liberal democracy by Israelis and non-Israelis alike. These expectations are the best indication that even if democracy has been wounded in Israel, it is far from dead.

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