By Neve Gordon
Political change is slow. One doesn’t go to sleep in a democracy and wake up in a fascist regime. The citizens of Egypt and Tunisia can attest to the fact that the opposite is also true: dictatorship does not become democracy overnight.
Any political change of such magnitude is the result of a lot of hard work and is always incremental, indicating that there really is no single historical event that one can claim as the moment of conversion.
There are, however, significant events that serve as historical milestones.
The suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, who doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire when police confiscated his produce because he did not have the necessary permits, will be remembered as the spark that ignited the Tunisian revolution, and perhaps even the regional social uprisings now called the Arab Awakening. Similarly, the massive gatherings in Tahrir Square will probably be seen as the straw that broke the camel’s back, setting in motion a slow process of Egyptian democratisation.
In Israel, it might very well be that the Boycott Bill, which the Knesset approved by a vote of 47 to 38, will also be remembered as a historic landmark.
Ironically, the bill itself is likely to be inconsequential. It stipulates that any person who initiates, promotes or publishes material that might serve as grounds for imposing a boycott on Israel or the Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem is committing an offence. If found “guilty” of such an offence, that person may be ordered to compensate parties economically affected by the boycott, including reparations of 30,000 Israeli shekels ($8,700) without an obligation on the part of the plaintiffs to prove damages.
The bill’s objective is to defend Israel’s settlement project and other policies that contravene international human rights law against non-violent mobilisation aimed at putting an end to these policies.
The Knesset’s legal advisor, Eyal Yinon, said that the bill “damages the core of Israel’s freedom of political expression” and that it would be difficult for him to defend the law in the High Court of Justice since it contradicts Israel’s basic law of “Human Dignity and Liberty”. Given Yinon’s statement, and the fact that Israeli rights organisations have already filed a petition to the High Court arguing that the bill is anti democratic, there is a good chance that the Boycott Bill’s life will be extremely short.
And yet this law should still be considered as a turning point. Not because of what the bill does, but because of what it represents.
After hours of debate in the Israeli Knesset, the choice was clear. On one side was Israel’s settlement project and rights-abusive policies, and on the other side was freedom of speech, a basic pillar of democracy. The fact that the majority of Israel’s legislators decided to support the bill plainly demonstrates that they are willing to demolish Israeli democracy for the sake of holding onto the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The onslaught on democracy has been incremental. The Boycott Bill was merely a defining moment, preceded by the Nakba and Acceptance Committee laws, and will likely be followed by the passing of a slate of laws aimed at destroying Israeli human rights organisations. These laws will be voted upon in the coming months, and, given the composition of the Israeli Knesset, it is extremely likely that all of them will pass.
Israeli legislators realise, though, that in order to quash all internal resistance, the destruction of the rights groups will not be enough. Their ultimate target is the High Court of Justice, the only institution that still has the power and authority to defend democratic practices.
Their strategy, it appears, is to wait until the Court annuls the new laws and then to use the public’s dismay with the Court’s decisions to limit the Court’s authority through legislation, thus making it impossible for judges to cancel unconstitutional laws. Once the High Court’s authority is severely hamstringed, the road will be paved for right-wing Knesset members to do as they wish. The process leading to the demise of Israeli democracy may be slow, but the direction in which the country is going is perfectly clear.
First published in Al Jazeera and reprinted with the author’s permission