Sham or shame? Israel's policy on aid groups is both
As protests raged again across the Middle East, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, offered his assessment of the Arab Spring last week. It was, he said, an "Islamic, anti-western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli, undemocratic wave", adding that Israel's Arab neighbours were "moving not forwards, but backwards".
It takes some chutzpah - or epic self-delusion - for Israel's prime minister to be lecturing the Arab world on liberalism and democracy at this moment.
In recent weeks, a spate of anti-democratic measures have won support from Mr Netanyahu's right-wing government, justified by a new security doctrine: see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil of Israel. If the legislative proposals pass the Israeli courts, Israel's human rights groups and media and the international community will be transformed into the proverbial three monkeys.
Israel's vigilant human rights community has been the chief target of this assault. A cabinet committee recently approved two bills with the aim of snuffing out rights organisations by curbing their primary source of income - foreign donations. After vehement protest from the European Union and the United States, Mr Netanyahu agreed to temporarily freeze the proposals, but human rights groups are braced for the bills to resurface after the storm abates.
Seemingly undeterred, the government threw its weight last week behind a new defamation law that will make it too costly for all but millionaires to criticise politicians and the government. Mr Netanyahu observed: "It may be called the Defamation Law, but I call it the 'publication of truth law.'" The media and human rights groups fear the worst.
Another bill, backed by the justice minister, Yaakov Neeman, is designed to skew the make-up of a panel selecting judges for Israel's supreme court. Several judicial posts are about to fall vacant, and the government hopes to stuff the court with appointees who share its ideological worldview and will not rescind its anti-democratic legislation. Mr Neeman's favoured candidate is a settler who has a history of ruling against human rights organisations.
Senior legislators from Mr Netanyahu's party are pushing another bill that would make it nearly impossible for human rights organisations, especially those funded from abroad, to petition the supreme court against government actions.
At one level, these and a host of other related measures - including increasing government intimidation of the Israeli media and academia, a clampdown on whistle-blowers and also the recently passed boycott law, which exposes critics of the settlements to potentially expensive court actions for damages - are designed to strengthen the occupation by disarming its critics inside Israel.
But there is another, even more valued goal: making sure that the horror stories from the Palestinian territories - monitored by human rights organisations, reported by the media and heard in the courts - never reach the ears of the international community.
The clampdown is justified, in the Israeli right's view, on the grounds that criticism of the occupation represents not domestic concerns but unwelcome foreign interference in Israel's affairs. The promotion of human rights - whether in Israel, the occupied territories or the Arab world - is considered by Mr Netanyahu as anti-Israeli.
Israel's qualms against foreign meddling, of course, do not extend to the activities of right-wing Jews from abroad, such as the US casino magnate Irving Moskowitz, who have pumped enormous sums into propping up illegal Jewish settlements built on Palestinian land.
Israelis are obsessed with their country's image abroad and what they regard as a "delegitimisation" campaign that threatens not only the occupation's continuation but also Israel's long-term survival as an ethnic state. The leadership has been incensed by surveys of global opinion showing Israel ranked among the most unpopular countries in the world.
But Israel has no intention of altering its policies, or of pursuing peace. Rather, Mr Netanyahu's government has been oscillating between a desperate desire to pass yet more anti-democratic legislation to stifle criticism and a modicum of restraint motivated by fear of the international backlash.
It was hardly surprising then that the cabinet debate on legislation to bankrupt human rights groups focused barely at all on the proposals' merits. Instead, the head of the National Security Council, Yaakov Amidror, was called before ministers to explain whether Israel stood to lose more from passing the bills or from allowing human rights groups to carry on monitoring the occupation.
Deluded as it may seem, Mr Netanyahu's ultimate goal is to turn the clock back 40 years, to a "golden age" when foreign correspondents and western governments could refer, without blushing, to the occupation of the Palestinians as "benign".
Donald Neff, Jerusalem correspondent for Time magazine in the 1970s, admitted years later that his own and his colleagues' performance was so feeble in large part because there was little critical information available on the occupation. Now, however, the genie is out the bottle. The international community understands full well - thanks to Israeli human rights activists - both that the occupation is brutal and that Israel has been peacemaking in bad faith.
If Israel continues on its current course, the world will draw an additional conclusion: the so-called only democracy in the Middle East is a sham.
Jonathan Cook is a journalist based in Nazareth
Updated: December 1, 2011 04:00 AM