Wednesday, October 20, 2010

If it was Reported, it Must be True (or not?)

Everyone who follows news from Israel knows about the new loyalty law which requires prospective new citizens to swear loyalty to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. There have been howls of protest from across the globe, including from people who live in countries with similar laws. Israel's leftie NGOs have been in overdrive. Those of us who think the idea is silly, since it makes no difference in real life to anything while casting us in a chauvinist light, have been hiding under rocks waiting for something more dramatic to divert attention elsewhere.

And all the while, the story isn't even true.

Or rather, it's true, but not as reported. What happened was that a government committee took one additional step on the long road from inception of an idea to making it law. It hasn't been legislated into law yet - and believe it or not, it may well never be legislated. That's right. The democratic process being what it is, there's a reasonable chance that the proposal will never pass muster,and never become law.

Back in August I wrote an article about this, but then never did anything with it. So this seems as good a moment as any to post it:

Decrying the erosion of Israel's democracy is all the rage these days. Respectable newspapers from the London Economist to the New York Times have solemnly deliberated if perhaps a wave of chauvinistic legislation washing through the Knesset may portent a weakening of democratic freedoms. The discussion has been propelled by a steady stream of alarming announcements by various Israeli organizations, most recently a list of "The top 14 anti-democratic Knesset bills" published by the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). The list includes mooted attempts to force Israelis to explicitly proclaim their loyalty to the "Jewish and democratic" nature of their country, limits to the power of the Supreme Court, combating boycotts against Israel, dealing with illegal immigration and foreign funding of political activity in Israel.

It so happens that the American law on foreign funding of political activities is more stringent than the proposed Israeli version. There is no American consensus on illegal immigration, nor on abetting anti-American activity in the context of war. One can have impeccably democratic credentials and still support some of the legislation which horrifies ACRI. Yet debating each line of the list is to miss the larger point, which is that proposing outlandish laws is an essential part of Israeli democracy, in a way that differs from American politics.

Members of Israel's Knesset are elected on a party list, and have no direct constituents.  There is no way an individual politician can bring home kosher pork (though some parties exist solely for this purpose). Re-election, the reason d'ĂȘtre of all politicians, is achieved by building an internal party machine, and by acquiring notoriety.  Most Israeli politicians spend all their waking hours courting the party stalwarts, and desperately seeking the spotlight. Proposing oddball legislation, the odder the better, is a tried and proven highway to notoriety.

Proposing hardly equals enacting. Israel's legislative process, as any democracy's, is designed to slow things down. Laws are serious, long-lived things, and mustn't be created in the heat of an argument or the passion of a temporary context. Existing laws must be checked and potential contradictions ironed out; conflicting interests must be taken into account. So draft laws move through many stages, and the result always differs from the first draft. Skilled parliamentarians husband their laws through hundreds of hurdles, knowing it may take years until enactment.  Unskilled parliamentarians, or those for whom legislation is not a passion, mostly never see their proposals enacted. A solid majority of mooted laws wither. But then, many proposals were never intended to be enacted in the first place. Their short existence was only ever intended to generate media attention.

The most likely moment for a law to attract public attention is at its inception, and many proposals are carefully crafted to arouse excitement. If it angers someone, all the better: strife creates news. Goading parliamentarians from opposite parties into wrathful opposition means everyone wins, as each side gets the opportunity to grandstand before its own electorate. It may be a bit silly, but it doesn't generate bridges to nowhere.

Take Avigdor Lieberman's proposed Loyalty Law. He cynically invented it during the 2009 campaign. By calling for an undefined loyalty oath he positioned himself as the defender of Zionism facing Palestinian irredentism; the Arab MKs garnered attention in their quarters by standing up to him, so everyone was happy. After the election Lieberman carried on his charade, insisting the government discuss his proposed law – which it duly did. It discussed and discarded it. Netanyahu's right-wing coalition killed the law, not the opposition; not that Lieberman cared. The grandstanding having served its purpose he has long since moved on, and hasn't lifted a finger to salvage the law which was central to his campaign. [ed: This is not the present proposal, but rather an earlier one, that proposed that all citizens would be called to swear an oath; the current one talks only of new immigrants.]

Just as there are political brownie points for outlandish posturing, there aren't any for adult behavior. The right-wing coalition knows the law was ridiculous so they killed it, but unobtrusively for fear of appearing soft. The Arabs and the left ought to be celebrating its demise, but the last thing they want is to draw attention to good behavior of the government. So no-one talks. At birth the law garnered attention; its termination went unheralded. 

The Obama administration and Netanyahu's government are both roughly one-third through their present term of office. Obama's party has enacted an impressive series of laws. Netanyahu's critics, meanwhile, are still warning about mere intentions. It's easy to see why they gain attention for doing so, but perhaps it's time to notice that none of the problematic proposals are actually being legislated. Israel's democracy, contrary to rumor, is hale, healthy and functioning well.


Anonymous said...

IMHO, the fastest way to kill this law will be to propose to have it extended to Jewish immigrants, as well. At that point, the religious parties will kill it.


Yaacov said...

That's what seems to have happened - with the additional twist that the main immigrants' party is also opposed, because then immigrants would be treated differently than born Israelis. This mean the Lieberman's party seems to be against the law...

Barry Meislin said...

Not really fair, on several levels.

Not fair to Mike Leigh. What's he supposed to do, now?

Not fair to Hussein Ibish. (You used that word, "mooted" again.)

Not fair to those whose sole purpose for living is to slime Israel (though I'm sure they'll get over it pretty quick---probably not even paying attention).

The only solace in this whole sordid matter is the way it shows how this government is so utterly inept. (One shudders to think what would happen if it were to suddenly became competent...)

NormanF said...

Even if the law is enacted, it won't really change much in Israel.

As Ya'acov can testify, oaths of allegiance is other democratic countries have not impaired freedoms in them in the slightest.

It wouldn't be any different in Israel.

Avigdor said...


I can't emphasize enough how important pieces like this are for those of us without in-depth knowledge of the Israeli political system. The impact is transformative; it goes beyond this particular proposed law. It changes how we approach proposed legislation coming out of Israel in general, even if the media remains clueless.

What's more, I could ask a dozen Israelis I know about this proposed law, and most of them would throw their hands up, start arguing about details of the law, or just repeat what they heard in the news. Your focus on the process, the real-life application of parliamentary systems without direct constituency representation is a crucial piece that no news outlet or opinion piece would ever explain or express.

You've written other transformative pieces like this one - on housing demolition, on revocation of residency for East Jerusalem Arabs living abroad. The impact, at least for me, and my conversations with others, is enormous. Keep it up!

Anonymous said...

What Victor said.

David E. Sigeti

Yaacov said...

Thanks, Victor and David.