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The Middle East Channel

To be or not to be a pariah state

"Israel has an open, vibrant, and pluralistic civil society, actively engaged in raising priorities and challenging the Government’s conduct. The government is engaged in an ongoing dialogue with numerous NGOs.… Thus, for example, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) … has contributed significantly to the protection of human rights in Israel…." It may ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

"Israel has an open, vibrant, and pluralistic civil society, actively engaged in raising priorities and challenging the Government’s conduct. The government is engaged in an ongoing dialogue with numerous NGOs. Thus, for example, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) … has contributed significantly to the protection of human rights in Israel…."

It may be surprising, but the above paragraph is not quoted from ACRI’s website, but rather from an official Israeli government document. The quote is from the National Report submitted by Israel, as part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), to the U.N.’s Human Rights Council. It would appear to the reader that Israel’s government rightfully celebrates the country’s strong civil society and proudly recognizes the part played by Israel’s human rights groups in building a better Israel. But that was back in 2008, when this report was submitted. Back then, working for "the protection of humanrights in Israel" was not yet equivalent to collaborating with the enemy. But much has changed since then.

One can perhaps claim that the paragraph quoted above should not betaken too seriously. After all, Israeli governments have demonstrated over theyears that they do not take the United Nations very seriously, rightfully pointing out how politicized and unbalanced U.N. positions on Israel often are. One may thus speculate that UPR submissions may very well have been drafted for PR purposes only, not to be mistaken as a genuine expression of domestic policies.

Perhaps. But this 2008 National Report is far from being the only official example of Israel’s stated commitment to human rights and the country’s celebration of these values as essentially good. Here is another suchexample:

Considering the importance which the Parties attach to … the observance of human rights and democracy, which form the very basis of the Association … Relations between the Parties … shall be based on respect for human rights and democratic principles, which guides their internal and international policy.… The EU and Israel share the common values of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law and basic freedoms.…

The above lines are from the EU-Israel Association Agreement, which entered into force back in 2000. This agreement, unlike what can be potentially said about U.N. submissions, is about very tangible outputs. Specifically, it forms the basis for Israeli universities, researchers, and industries to directly receive hundreds of millions of euros from various EU funds and for Israel’s free trade arrangements with its largest trading partner — the European Union. It is also the basisfor the European Union’s investments, though of much smaller amounts, in some Israeli human rights groups. Thus it is fortunate indeed that the European Union and Israel "share the common values of democracy," these shared values being the "very basis" for the agreement.

Iranian agents, Hamas terrorists, and human rights activists?

Fast-forward to the summer of 2009. Listen to Ron Dermer, directorof policy planning in the prime minister’s office, and think of how rapidlythings can — and do — change in the Middle East:

We are going to dedicate time and manpower to combating these groups; we are not going to be sitting ducks in a pond for the human rights groups to shoot at us with impunity.

Dermer, as pointed out in the Coteret blog following an April 5 New York Times article ("Israeli Rights Groups View Themselves as Under Siege") goes on to explain that the reports of these organizations are an attempt to undermine Israel’s legitimate right to self-defense, and he doesn’t mince hiswords:

Every NGO that participates in this adds fuel to the fire and is serving the cause of Hamas.

How quickly, indeed, can one be transformed from being "engaged in an ongoing dialogue with" the government and being celebrated by it, to being an enemy of the state, a collaborator with the enemy, a traitor.

These statements cannot be brushed aside as comments by a low-level advisor — not only because Dermer is one of Netanyahu’s closest and most senior aides, but because of the astonishingly central position this view has taken in Netanyahu’s strategy. In his November remarks at the Saban Forum, one of the most significant speeches made by the prime minister since being elected, Netanyahu identified three strategic threats facing Israel. The first: a nuclear Iran; the second: missile and rocket attacks.

And the third strategic threat? Any "attempt to deny Israel the right to self-defense."

Netanyahu did not go as far as to name the human rights NGOs that are the cause for the "third strategic threat" — though he did mention the Goldstone report as the prime culprit in this context. Netanyahu’s "logic" is though rather transparent — the prime minister expresses outrage over "attempt[s] to undermine Israel’s legitimate right to self-defense," while one of his closest advisors is publicly on record stating that human rightsNGOs are the engine behind these "attempts."

The implication is clear: In the view of the current prime minister of the state of Israel, human rights NGOs and their work is strategicallydangerous for Israel — as dangerous as a nuclear Iran or as missiles and rockets from neighboring countries. Iranian agents, Hamas terrorists, and human rights activists are all therefore enemies of the state.

Netanyahu, right and wrong

Netanyahu is correct in recognizing that for acountry like Israel, the loss of moral credibility (domestic as well asinternational) is no less a danger than strategic military threats. In that he would seem to echo the words of then U.S. President-elect Barack Obama in his victory speech on Nov. 4, 2008:

the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.

Having agreed on this beautiful principle, the two leaders could not diverge more on how it is then applied in the irrespective circumstances. For Obama this meant reviewing and at least being open to correcting existing policies that were dramatically out of kilter with America’s own self-image and the role it seeks to play in the international arena.

For Netanyahu it seems to be all about the effectiveness of the coverup — hope nobody notices the gaping chasm betweenhype and reality, and if that chasm is exposed then blame (and crush) the messenger. The actual policies that are undermining Israel’s standing are not only left untouched, but accelerated and entrenched. This in turn generates a greater need to suppress the whistle-blowers, the dissenting voices without whom there is no democratic accountability; the clampdown produces its own egregious examples of undemocratic regime behavior, and so the vicious cycle in which Israel is trapped (by design of Netanyahu’s government) continues.

Netanyahu confuses (perhaps intentionally) the legitimacy of his government’s particular policies with the very legitimacy of Israel’s existence — but the two are not equivalent. Criticizing specific government policies that violate human rights and civil liberties is a far cry from questioning a country’s core legitimacy; secondly, instead of addressing the real policy issues that are the basis for his loss of legitimacy, he is treating the matter as a PR problem, to be solved by going after those who dare point out his government’s shortcomings.

Netanyahu cannot secure international acceptance for his policies. This is unsurprising given the measures that his government is taking to further sustain the 43-year-old occupation — one that Netanyahu shows no signs of ending — and given that he came into office following the erosion of Israeli adherence to international law and norms witnessed during Operation Cast Lead. True, the current government did not create the occupation nor was it in power during OperationCast Lead; yet, it is under this government’s watch that the following policies have been enacted or perpetuated: the insistence on not undertaking a credible independent Israeli investigation into Operation Cast Lead — something previous Israeli governments did after past military operations; the ongoing blockade on Gaza, collectively punishing a million and a half human beings and depriving them of basic needs; the arrests of leaders of the emerging nonviolent Palestinian campaign against the occupation; the removal of Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem; segregated roads (pdf) and separate legal systems for Palestinians and settlers in the occupied West Bank multiply; and the abysmal record for holding settlers accountable for acts of violence.

The list could go on and on with examples of policies and actions that are indeed incompatible with democratic practices. Such actions are expressions of self-evident injustice, violate international human rights standards, and in many cases also defy Israel’s own laws. They also cause great suffering to many. ACRI and other human rights actors are clear in their commitment to speak out against these injustices and to continue stating the obvious: without an end to the occupation there will not be respect for humanrights.

All of this connects directly to Netanyahu’s second mistake  — avoiding the core issues and instead focusing on the PR battle. Choosing symptom over cause, his government is losing legitimacy not because of expressions of criticism by human rights organizations, but as a result of the illegitimacy of the very policies he formulated. The path to regain legitimacy passes through changing these policies, while further suppressing dissent will only exacerbate this trend, rather than mollify it. The surest way to not be perceived as a pariah state is for that state’s government to avoid enacting pariah-state policies.

An open society; or open season on human rights?

As the government is treating its loss of legitimacy as a PR problem, it has made the public commitment to fight back in this arena. The extent of the government’s role in attempting to silence dissenting voices is unknown, just as it remains unclear how much "time and manpower" has been dedicated by the government in "combating these groups." But it’s clear that in Israel there is currently an ongoing, effective,broadly construed campaign whose aim is to weaken human rights NGOs through both attempted public delegitimization and legislative measures.

Just consider two key examples of recent months.

The first is the campaign launched against the New Israel Fund (NIF) by the Im Tirzu group. NIF (a key funder of progressive, civil-society groups in Israel — full disclosure: ACRI is NIF’s flagship grantee, proudly receiving annual core funding from NIF) and its grantees have found themselves facing unprecedented, aggressive campaigns. In these campaigns, funded by such backers as evangelist preacher John Hagee and using the Goldstone report as a pretext, the work of NIF grantees has been portrayed as outright collaboration with the enemy. It is unclear whether Im Tirzu is in fact a grassroots student group as it presents itself, or instead a government pet-project. Im Tirzu’s chairperson was recently quoted in Israel’s largest daily, Yediot Ahronot, repeating Netanyahu’s analysis of "three strategic threats" word for word; the seamless merging of governmental and nongovernmental actors’ narratives was not lost on those under constant attack by both.

The second example is the "transparency" bill introduced in February by MK Zeev Elkin (Likud) with the government’s support. It stipulates that any Israeli NGO receiving funding from "foreign state entities" (including friendly "entities" such as the United States or the European Union) would lose their public institution tax status, require them to begin reporting to the registrar of political parties, and make it a criminal offense to not repetitively disclose in publications, online, in media interviews, and in meetings or speeches that as NGOs they are funded by "foreign state entities." With extensive transparency requirements already in place (including specific reporting to the registrar of nonprofits of grants from foreign state entities — and indeed of all sources of funding from approximately $5,000 and above), it is clear that the Elkin bill is about anything but transparency.

Unfortunately, the new challenges to Israeli democracy stretch far beyond "just" these two cases. In today’s environment, organizations assisting asylum seekers and migrant workers find themselves being described by the former head of the immigration police Oz unit, Tziki Sela, as "aiming to destroy Israel," while Interior Minister Eli Yishai has said that they are "undermining the Zionist enterprise." Human rights organizations are where, according to Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon, "your enemies will come from." International volunteers in the WestBank are targets for deportation (even clowns); police falsely arrest peaceful demonstrators and try to prevent others from even reaching protests; the Knesset is in the process of legislating laws targeting Palestinian Israelis; and High Court of Justice decisions are ignored by the government.

Taken together, examples like these have rapidly become part of a new reality for Israel’s human rights community. It is thus a sad irony that much of Israel’s remaining international legitimacy is actually embodied in the very institutions which the government is now so thoroughly attacking and attempting to discredit.

Changing course

So what will it take for this climate of silencing to begin to change and for Israeli democracy to regain its bearings and avoid further erosion? Let me offer three answers.

For those out there who are truly driven by anti-Israeli, anti-Palestinian, or anti-Semitic motivations and try to hijack legitimate, essential criticism in order to advance destructive agendas, I have zero sympathy and zero support. In fact, they should be condemned. However, the fact that there are those out there ready to misappropriate the moral, professional work of human rights activists is no reason for our work to be self-censored or silenced.

For those who care about this part of the world: This is not the time for true friends to remain silent. It is rather the time for people to get informed, get involved, and speak out honestly for the values they believe in — what they support and what they reject, the sets of ideas and policies that are not only consistently moral but also more likely to lead toward a safe future in which the human rights of all are realized.

And finally, for those in Israel and Palestine who are steadfast in their commitment to the realization of democracy, human rights, social justice, and an end of the occupation: While the attacks against our values are becoming more and more aggressive, there is no reason for despair. For if our message did not resonate and even shame then it is unlikely that such efforts would be invested into silencing us. If our values were not so challenging we would not be so targeted. The fears of the past join hands with the shortsighted politics of the present, together fueling anti-democratic campaigns and prolonging an unsustainable, unacceptable reality. And yet, as elsewhere in time and place, however long it takes and no matter how much things further deteriorate before they finally begin to change course, there can be no doubt: A just future is where our path leads us.

Hagai El-Ad is an Israeli human rights activist and the executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI).

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