Israel Kicks Down its own Democratic Hill?

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knesset.jpgPart of the annual foreign policy ritual in Washington is that the US President, Vice President, and leading Members of Congress make major campaign and fundraising speeches, sign on to resolutions, and pledge unconditional support to Israel, often referring to it as “the only genuine democracy in the Middle East.” 

But will it remain so?  The Israel Knesset just passed 47-38 a bill outlawing its citizens from supporting any anti-Israel boycotts.

I have been to Israel and am always impressed by how wide the margins of debate are there — far wider than inside the DC Beltway where thought control harassment and political intimidation have become art forms when it comes to discussing Middle East dynamics. 

But in Israel, in the Knesset, there has been real debate for decades.  I’ve spent quality time discussing issues in a completely civil manner with Orthodox rabbis, with members of the Shas Party, with members even of Avigdor Lieberman’s party.  I’ve talked with chairs of the various settlers’ associations — and have worked hard to develop relations across Labor, Kadima and Likud.  Israeli politicians play hardball with each other – and the country, in the end, is better for the level of civil society debate demanded by citizens.

Israel has an impressive rough and tumble democracy, or had.

There is just no doubt that Israel has been King of the Hill in democracy terms and now seems to be kicking down its own democratic hill with the passage of this law.  For the record, I don’t support a boycott of Israel just like I don’t support anyone burning the American flag. 

But free societies show themselves to be better and more stable than their totalitarian cousins because they allow free debate and governments allow themselves to be challenged by their own people. 

If South Africans, inside South Africa, had not supported the various boycotts of their country during the battle over Apartheid, then Mandela may have remained imprisoned and the despicable ethnic divide might have endured. 

Israel has just hoisted on itself the equivalence of a McCarthy-like witch hunt for those it feels might be traitors to the Greater Israel cause.  These kinds of loyalty oath stunts and such government brittleness undermine democracy and narrow national debate during times when its smarter to keep the gates of ideas as widely open as possible.

Despite today’s vote, I don’t think that Israel will careen off its more deeply embedded democratic foundation so quickly, but what passed should stand as a huge red flag for Israelis and those of us concerned for its future (and yes, I am).

One of my close mentors, the late and well known Japanese politics expert Hans Baerwald, told me that one really never knows the norms and real truth of a political system until observed under stress.

Real democracies need to cling to their basic code — not take the shortest, most expeditious, extra-legal route in times of perceived national crisis and undermine the rights of citizens.  That violates basic trust — and eventually plants the seeds of real rather than imagined rebellion.

– Steve Clemons is Washington Editor at Large at The Atlantic and can be followed on Twitter at @SCClemons

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