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Fury over Israeli minister's 'McCarthy' tactics

Avigdor Lieberman's investigation into the funding of "terrorist collaborators", as the ultranationalist accuses some of the country's best-known human rights groups of doing, spurs debate over democratic values.

TEL AVIV // An initiative by the party of Israel's ultranationalist foreign minister to investigate some of the country's best-known human rights groups has been blasted as McCarthyism and has spurred an intense debate over the country's democratic values.

Avigdor Lieberman scored a political victory last week when the parliament voted to advance a proposal by his Yisrael Beitenu party to investigate the funding of groups that have criticised and documented Israeli human rights abuses, mainly in the Palestinian territories or against the country's Arab minority. Mr Lieberman has branded the organisations as terrorist collaborators which seek to harm the country's security.

The inquiry is the latest indication of the increasing influence of the Right in Israel, where it is represented by a majority of the 120-member parliament as well as by most of the parties in the coalition government. But the parliament's nod of the investigation has even prompted prominent right-wing officials to warn that it goes too far to try to silence the government's critics.

"The idea that legislators should examine bodies with whose ideals they disagree is extremely dangerous," Dan Meridor, a minister from the ruling Likud party, told Haaretz newspaper this week. "When freedom of expression and the freedom to express an opinion are threatened, then Israeli democracy is also threatened."

Reuven Rivlin, the parliamentary speaker and a fellow Likud member, cautioned that the inquiry would be a "show trial" and urged to "stop this murky wave". Benny Begin, another Likud minister and the son of the former prime minister Menachen Begin, said: "One needs to differentiate between majority rule and the dictatorship of the majority. Lawmakers cannot at the same time be investigators, attorneys and judges."

But Mr Lieberman, known for his fiery rhetoric, has accused right-wing opponents of his party's initiative of turning into "apologists" for the Left and traitors to the "national camp".

"It is clear that we are talking here about organisations which are pure accomplices to terror," he told Yisrael Beitenu members. "Their entire aim is to weaken the Israeli military and its determination to defend Israeli citizens."

The vote last week was one in a series needed to establish a commission into the funding of the groups. But the panel will likely have more of a symbolic significance since it will have no power to compel individuals to testify or documents to be submitted.

High-profile groups targeted by the inquiry will include Breaking the Silence, which has publicised hundreds of testimonies by former soldiers criticising their service in the occupied territories, B'Tselem, which is focused on Palestinian rights in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and Adalah, a legal advocacy centre for Israel's Arab citizens.

The organisations, some of whose donors include EU governments, have pointed out that they already comply with legal requirements for funding transparency and that comprehensive lists of donors were available on their websites and in annual reports. They have also claimed the initiative was a bid to intimidate critics of Israel's actions, especially against Palestinians, and have compared the inquiry to the 1950s anti-communist witch hunts in the US led by the senator Joseph McCarthy.

The initiative has also drawn condemnation from at least two large mainstream Jewish organisations in the US, the American Jewish Committee and the Union for Reform Judaism, which have claimed that it undermined Israel's international image.

Nevertheless, Yisrael Beitenu has insisted the groups worked against Israeli interests, and its proposal calls for the panel to examine suggestions that some organisations are funded by bodies with links to violence against Israel as well as by hostile Arab countries. Fania Kirshenbaum, the legislator who had introduced the proposal and is likely to chair the panel, also blasted the groups for providing material to the UN inquiry led by the South African judge Richard Goldstone, which in 2009 concluded that Israel had committed war crimes during its assault in Gaza two years ago.

Without citing proof, Ms Kirshenbaum has also charged that the groups were behind arrest warrants issued against Israeli political and military leaders abroad, in countries such as the UK.

The idea for the inquiry follows other such initiatives by Yisrael Beitenu against Palestinians or Israeli Arabs and those who advocate for their rights. Those have included requiring a loyalty oath from non-Jews who apply for Israeli citizenship and withdrawing state funding from groups marking the annual Palestinian mourning day over Israel's creation.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae