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ANALYSIS: Is Netanyahu waging ‘war’ on critics at home?

The Israeli government has indicated it is preparing to take a hard line against human rights groups, the media and Supreme Court
A photo exhibition by the Breaking the Silence NGO in Switzerland has aroused much criticism (AFP)

NAZARETH, Israel - A month into resuming his premiership, Benjamin Netanyahu has been accused of an increasingly autocratic rule, as critics warn that his new government is preparing to take a draconian line against Israeli institutions opposing its policies.

Israel’s rightwing coalition, which was formed last month, has already indicated it will make a priority of tackling three fronts – human rights organisations, the media and the Supreme Court. All repeatedly clashed with Netanyahu during his previous terms in office.

The leader of the parliamentary opposition, Isaac Herzog, sounded the alarm last month, cautioning Netanyahu not to “raise a hand” against the judiciary, media or the country’s minorities, including its 1.5 million Palestinian citizens. Netanyahu, he added, appeared to have learnt “tricks” from the region’s dictators.

Long-time observers of Israeli politics also fear that the current narrow right-wing coalition will give the prime minister a much freer hand. In his two earlier governments, Netanyahu depended on the support of centrist parties, such as Labor and Yesh Atid. Now he faces no such constraints.

After Netanyahu awarded himself new powers to veto legislation this week, Dov Khenin, the only Jewish member of the Arab-led Joint List party in the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, wondered: “Are we for autocracy?”

Similarly, Uri Avnery, leader of the Gush Shalom peace movement and a former Knesset member, concluded in a recent column entitled "Who will save Israel?" that: “The extreme right has found its self-assurance, and is determined to use its power.”

Concerns mount

Causes for concern have quickly mounted.

They have included the announcement of a government bill to penalise human rights groups working to help Palestinians in the occupied territories, as well as to protect the rights of the large Palestinian minority inside Israel and of African asylum seekers.

In addition, a diplomatic source told Middle East Eye that behind the scenes Israeli officials are trying to browbeat European governments into ending funding for the Israeli human rights community.

Eyebrows have also been raised by Netanyahu’s decision to reserve the communications ministry, which regulates the media, for himself. This is despite having a shortage of ministerial posts with which to reward coalition partners.

Analysts have warned that Netanyahu is preparing to intimidate parts of the media critical of him and shore up the position of Israel Hayom, a free daily that has become the biggest-circulation national newspaper. Owned by US casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, the paper staunchly supports Netanyahu.

Meanwhile, there are fears that the Israeli Supreme Court, which repeatedly came to blows with Netanyahu’s last government over efforts to jail and deport asylum seekers, is in Netanyahu’s sights as well.

The prime minister agreed to appoint Ayelet Shaked, of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, as justice minister. Shaked has been a fierce critic of the court, and has previously tried to introduce legislation to neuter it.

“Netanyahu has good as declared war on dissent, whether it’s from human rights organisations or the media,” said Jafar Farah, director of Mossawa, an advocacy group for Israel’s Palestinian minority.

Israel ‘not perfect’

Netanyahu has defended his record against such charges.

Following criticism from US President Barack Obama that his security worldview assumed only the “worst possibilities”, he said on Thursday: “Israel isn’t perfect, but it is on a level with the world’s great democracies and it faces challenges that are much more difficult.”

He also said that his government had invested heavily in helping Israel’s Palestinian minority, and he promised to preserve the independence of the Supreme Court, while stressing that his intention was only to open up the media to greater competition, not to control it.

“I believe in competition in products, in goods and also in ideas,” he told a press conference.

But critics are not reassured.

A European diplomat in Jerusalem told MEE that Israel had been waging an aggressive campaign in capitals across Europe to persuade them to stop funding human rights groups in Israel.

“The pressure being exerted on us behind the scenes is intense,” said the source, who wished not to be named, given the issue’s sensitivity.

The diplomat added that Israel wanted in particular to silence Israeli groups whose work might encourage a growing international boycott campaign or assist investigations by the International Criminal Court, which the Palestinians officially joined in April.

The diplomat indicated that B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence - both of which highlight human rights abuses and are funded by European governments - were top of Israel’s hit-list.

Row over soldiers’ testimony

The tensions exploded into public view this week when Israel’s foreign ministry opened a rift with Switzerland over its support for an exhibition by Breaking the Silence.

Yigal Caspi, Israel’s ambassador to Switzerland, denounced the exhibition in Zurich as “slander” for featuring photographs and testimonies from Israeli soldiers alleging violations of Palestinian human rights.

Caspi demanded that the Swiss government immediately stop funding the exhibition. Israel has previously demanded that Britain, the Netherlands, Spain and Denmark also end their support for the group.

The row was immediately followed by a decision from the culture ministry to pull funding from a dance show due to open in Tel Aviv that incorporates video clips from the occupied territories taken by B’Tselem.

Tzipi Hotovely, Netanyahu’s deputy in the foreign ministry, has stayed firm on Tuesday warning that his government would “act against groups that operate against Israel from within the country and abroad”.

Breaking the Silence responded by criticising the government’s “anti-democratic campaign”.

NGO bill in pipeline

The clash with Switzerland looked like the opening round in a more comprehensive move to muzzle human rights groups, said Rina Rosenberg, the head of advocacy at Adalah, a legal centre for Israel’s Palestinian citizens.

“The direction this government appears to be heading in is a cause for great concern,” she told MEE. “It looks like we are in for a big fight.”

The coalition parties specified in their agreement last month that they would advance what is being dubbed an ‘NGO bill’, targeting groups seen as left-wing and pro-Palestinian. Shaked, the new justice minister, is the driving force behind the measure.

According to Israeli media, the bill is likely to require NGOs to seek the approval of the defence and foreign ministries over funding they receive from foreign governments – a move that would hit human rights and pro-Palestinian groups the hardest.

If such legislation passes, most of these groups would struggle to survive financially, said Rosenberg.

In the previous Knesset, Netanyahu’s government tried to pass legislation against human rights organisations but froze it following protests from western governments. One proposal was to classify leftist groups receiving overseas funding as “foreign agents”.

At the same time groups like Rabbis for Human Rights and Physicians for Human Rights were rejected for tax-exempt status, limiting their ability to fundraise, right-wing groups were given the status.

Rosenberg said Netanyahu’s new government appeared to have learnt its lesson and was avoiding overtly politicised legislation.

“This time it looks like they are going to be much smarter - and that makes the situation more dangerous,” she said. “By conditioning funding on permission from the defence ministry or a Knesset committee, they can say they are following practices adopted in countries like Egypt, Jordan and India.”

She feared that Israel would be able to rebuff criticism by claiming it was being singled out.

Communications ‘czar’

Farah, of Mossawa, said Netanyahu was also seeking to “consolidate his power over the media”, as a further way to silence critics.

As well as becoming communications minister, he has placed himself in charge of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, and increased his control of the ministerial committee overseeing legislation.

As part of the coalition agreement, Netanyahu insisted that his partners commit to supporting any communications initiatives he introduces.

Amir Teig, a media analyst, warned that Netanyahu was determined to turn himself into a “communications czar”.

Yossi Verter, a political analyst for Haaretz, argued that this was “payback time” for Netanyahu. Netanyahu was reported to have been incensed by news coverage during the campaign that painted him in an unflattering light.

Threat to TV channels

Netanyahu’s main goal, according to analysts, is to end any threat of restrictions on the national daily newspaper Israel Hayom.

Netanyahu’s coalition partners in the last Knesset denounced the paper as Israel’s “Pravda”, after the official mouthpiece of the former Soviet regime.

Netanyahu called early elections last November shortly after the Knesset passed the first reading of legislation to bar national distribution of a free newspaper to limit Israel Hayom’s influence.

The paper, which loses Adelson an estimated $5m a year, has left the largest paid-for newspaper, Yedioth Aharonoth, which is critical of Netanyahu, struggling.

Netanyahu has also used his communications role to make life difficult for the country’s two loss-making commercial TV stations, Channels 2 and 10. He has offered no relief on their heavy debts, with Channel 10 in particular in danger of closure.

Farah said Netanyahu’s financial threats were an effective way to intimidate the broadcasters who rely on state advertising.

Judges ready for fight

Concerns for the Supreme Court, the final court of appeal for Palestinians in the occupied territories, as well as for minorities inside Israel, are also mounting.

Netanyahu shocked many in the legal community last month by appointing Jewish Home’s Shaked as justice minister. She has been a fierce critic of the court for being too liberal.

A retired Supreme Court justice was quoted saying of her appointment: “They [the government] are inviting a fight.”

Shaked is known to want to deny the Supreme Court the right to overturn laws and to change the judicial appointments system so that right-wing judges dominate.

“The idea of the court as a liberal institution is a myth,” said Daphna Golan, a law professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem specialising in human rights. “It is actually very conservative and rarely protects the rights of Palestinians, whether in the occupied territories or in Israel.”

“But as far as Shaked and the right are concerned, it is too activist and they want to weaken it.”

This week Shaked introduced her first bill as justice minister, setting a 10-year jail tariff for those found guilty of throwing stones. Observers expect the law to be applied only to Palestinians.

Golan said the danger was that, faced with threats from the government, the Supreme Court was becoming ever more loath to uphold human rights, removing yet another democratic layer.