Is democracy in Israel really under assault?

By Anshel Pfeffer, December 1, 2011
Pushing new laws: Lieberman

Pushing new laws: Lieberman

Almost three years ago, when Benjamin Netanyahu was forming his new government, the leader of the second largest party in his coalition, Avigdor Lieberman, demanded Yisrael Beiteinu receive the justice portfolio.

It was a red-herring. Lieberman knew that there was no way a member of his party could assume responsibility for the Attorney General's office while he himself was the possible target of an indictment on fraud, money-laundering and corruption.

But he had a perfect "non-political" candidate. Yaakov Neeman was not only one of the most successful lawyers in the Israeli private sector, for decades he had also been flitting in and out of senior public service posts.

In 1996, Mr Netanyahu wanted him appointed justice minister in his first cabinet, only to be foiled when the State Prosecutor's office suddenly indicted him over suspicions of false testimony.

Many in the right saw this as an attempt by the legal establishment to prevent the appointment of a known critic of the system with the knowledge and motivation to change it.

Neeman eventually saw the charges quashed and was appointed Finance Minister. This time around, the Prime Minister eagerly agreed with Mr Lieberman's choice and, in addition to their justice minister of choice, they also appointed David Rotem as Chairman of the Knesset's Justice Committee. In doing so, they achieved almost complete control of the legislative process.

Neeman and Rotem control the legislative pipeline

The recent deluge of new laws limiting the funding of human-rights NGOs, changing the appointment system in the Supreme Court and increasing libel damages would not have been possible without the Neeman-Rotem duo's control of the legislative pipeline and the tacit backing of a Netanyahu-Lieberman dominated cabinet.

To the claims being made by an enraged left-wing media and legal establishment - and even a minority of right-wingers - that the laws amount to an erosion of Israel's democracy, Mr Rotem and his collaborators respond that other Western democracies have similar laws.

But the debate is not just one of legal and democratic theory. There have long been dark mutterings in Likud that "the right cannot govern" and that the elitist Supreme Court, the leftist media and traitorous NGOs have all conspired to subvert the will of the Israeli people. Finally there is a right-wing government with a rock-solid majority and the necessary ideological backbone to appoint a right-minded court, muzzle the press and pressure the NGOs.

So why is Mr Netanyahu backtracking? He has already let it be known that he plans to "soften" the NGO funding and libel cost laws that passed their preliminary Knesset votes this month, and has ordered the coalition to drop proposals to vet new Supreme Court judges and limit the standing of petitioners to the High Court.

Some believe that the poll-addicted PM is concerned the laws are losing him popularity and has buckled in the face of media pressure. Others believe he has been convinced by the remaining followers of Begin in Likud to return to the party's liberal-democratic roots, and that in the future these flexible laws could be used against a future right-wing opposition.

Last updated: 12:10pm, December 1 2011