June 24, 2010 2:26:18 am
Hanin Zoabi,an Arab member of Israels parliament,the Knesset,will not have her parliamentary privileges withdrawn,despite a seven-to-one vote in a Knesset committee last week recommending that she be punished for sailing with Turkish and international campaigners to try to break Israels blockade of Gaza. The Knesset speaker,Reuven Rivlin,says he will ignore the recommendation and will not submit it to a plenary session for approval. He says he has won the tacit backing of Israels prime minister,Binyamin Netanyahu.
Mr Rivlin argued that sparing Ms Zoabi,aged 41,would save Israel from further international obloquy over its navys interception of the ship on May 31st,which left nine Turks dead. Bowing to world pressure,the Israeli security cabinet also decided this week to ease the Gaza blockade. The list of forbidden items will be pared down and building materials allowed in under UN supervision.
Furthermore,the prime minister has appointed a commission of inquiry led by a retired judge to examine the navys action. Two foreigners,David Trimble,a Nobel peace laureate and former first minister of Northern Ireland,and Ken Watkin,a former military judge advocate-general from Canada,will sit as observers.
But the ages of the commissions three Israeli members have prompted caustic scepticism as to how vigorously Mr Netanyahu wants the episode investigated. The judge,aged 75,will be flanked by a former general of 86 and a former diplomat and lawyer of 93.
For Mr Rivlin,however,the near-unanimous assault on the privileges of Ms Zoabi,who was almost physically attacked by another woman member when she appeared at the plenary session,illustrates a sad erosion of Israels democratic and parliamentary tradition. Would they do that to a Jewish member? he asks.
Mr Rivlin,known to everyone as Rubi,is a doubly rare bird. An old-style democrat,he is also a hardliner who argues for a Greater Israel that would embrace the whole of Palestine,with the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza given full citizenship of Israel. The Israeli Arabs are our only bridge to peaceful coexistence, he says. And were failing to maintain it. For many liberal Israelis,however,the 43-year-old occupation of the Palestinian territories explains why Israeli democracy is being steadily eroded.
For two generations weve denied the people across the green line their democratic rights, says Professor Mordechai Kremnitzer,an academic lawyer and vice-president of the Israel Democracy Institute,a think-tank. That must impact on our societys democratic ethos. Those who are ashamed find rationalisations: We have no choice, they say. Or they cite security considerations or explain the uniqueness of our conflict with the Arabs. But many others are not even ashamed
For Professor Kremnitzer,there is a danger not just that the Arab minority in Israel proper may be delegitimised but that the same fate could await all critics of the governments policy and especially of the Jewish settlements in the occupied areas.
He links this ugly trend to what he calls a McCarthyite campaign against civil society. Liberal and left-wing Israelis were shaken earlier this year by the stridency of a countrywide campaign against an old-established charity,the New Israel Fund,active in liberal causes among both Jews and Arabs. Vicious cartoons of its chairman,Naomi Chazan,a scholar and former Knesset member,appeared on billboards. The fund was accused of supporting NGOs that gave evidence to the UN inquiry,much reviled by most Israelis,that was headed by Richard Goldstone into Israels assault on Gaza in January last year. Mr Rivlin,alone on the right,praises Ms Chazan as a lifelong Zionist who believes in her Zionism as deeply as I do in mine. Her treatment,he says,pained him.
All is not lost for Israeli democracy, says Professor Kremnitzer. We need to fight. He points to Mr Rivlin as a bulwark. Without him theyd throw the Arab parties out of the Knesset. He is troubled,he says,by the apathy in which many educated Israeli liberals choose to wrap themselves. Such people sometimes speak of their internal emigration and just stop reading newspapers or following politics.
Alexander Yakobson,a political scientist at Jerusalems Hebrew University,sees a brighter side. There is very little actual violence between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, he says. Given the length and the intensity of the conflict,that is both surprising and encouraging. He says that freedom of speech and sexual and religious tolerance are all stronger than before.
But an Arab-Israeli student at Tel Aviv University recently complained to the police that she was pushed over,kicked and beaten while walking past an anti-Turkish demonstration on the campus. It took me two days to tell my parents, said Fatma Issa. Id always been told the atmosphere was fine on the Tel Aviv campus.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2010
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