Analysis from Israel

Two months later, that Election Day warning refuses to go away. Just last week, US President Barack Obama condemned it yet again; even actress Natalie Portman has joined the party. Yet Benjamin Netanyahu’s infamous remark has been widely and deliberately misconstrued by the simple expedient of omitting its second half.

Granted, the first half – “Arab voters are coming to the polls in droves” – was indefensible. Especially now, when Israeli Arabs are more interested in integrating than ever before, politicians should be encouraging this trend, not alienating them by painting them as enemies. But politicians nearing the end of an exhausting campaign often slip up and say stupid things they don’t really mean. Netanyahu retracted this part of the statement immediately. And in practice, his last two governments have invested heavily in Arab integration.

In contrast, he never retracted the statement’s second half; instead, he doubled down on it. Because that part wasn’t a slip of the tongue, but something he really meant – and which resonated deeply with his voters.

So what did he actually say? Here’s the initial statement: “Arab voters are coming to the polls in droves. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them in buses.”

And here’s his subsequent clarification: “There’s nothing illegitimate about citizens voting, Jewish or Arab, as they see fit. What’s not legitimate is the funding, the fact that money comes from abroad from NGOs and foreign governments, brings them en masse to the polls in an organized fashion, in favor of the left, gives undue power to the extremist Joint Arab List, and weakens the rightist bloc such that we’ll be unable to form a government.”

In other words, he was concerned about bolstering JAL, and legitimately so: Many of its MKs are indeed extremist (think Hanin Zoabi). But primarily, he was outraged that foreign governments and NGOs, via the Israeli NGOs they fund, were blatantly trying to influence the outcome of Israel’s election. And his voters shared that outrage, for three reasons.

First, it’s an affront to any citizen of a democracy to have foreigners trying to sway his country’s election, because it eviscerates democracy’s most fundamental right: the right to choose the government that rules you, rather than having it imposed from outside. Nor is this sentiment unique to Netanyahu voters: Israeli Druse were similarly outraged when Lebanese Druse leader Walid Jumblatt urged them to vote for JAL. The community’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Moafaq Tarif, demanded that Jumblatt “respect the right of Druse in Israel to vote as they please,” because they’re “an inseparable part of Israeli society” who “enjoy freedom of expression and freedom to do as they please.” Similar comments came from Druse supporters of both Labor and Likud.

But this sentiment resonates doubly with Netanyahu’s base, because it contravenes not only basic democratic rights, but also Israel’s raison d’etre. The Jewish state was created precisely so that Jews could finally control their own fate instead of having it controlled by others.

Second, foreign intervention stirs age-old Jewish fears, because the non-Jewish world’s track record on protecting Jews is lousy: See the Holocaust, Inquisition, Crusades, pogroms and expulsions from country after country. Even many Jewish holidays commemorate failed attempts to annihilate the Jews (including Passover, Hanukkah and Purim).

Consequently, this fear is ingrained in the psyches of all but the most secular Jews, and certainly in Netanyahu’s voters, who tend to be more traditional. So when he talked about “money from abroad” and “foreign governments,” his voters instinctively heard this as “people who don’t have our best interests at heart.”

Third and most important, however, was the track record of these foreign-funded NGOs themselves. Many Israelis would instinctively oppose anything these NGOs support, because they demonstrably don’t have Israel’s best interests at heart.

Take, for instance, B’Tselem, the Israeli NGO most frequently cited by the infamous Goldstone Report on the 2009 Gaza war. The Goldstone Commission was unabashedly created to be a lynch mob. First, it was set up by the viciously anti-Israel UN Human Rights Council, whose only country-specific permanent agenda item is condemning Israel. The HRC has condemned Israel 61 times since being established in 2006, compared to five for Iran, one each for ISIS and Boko Haram, and zero for Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Hamas. Second, the commission’s explicit mandate was to investigate Israel alone, not Hamas. Finally, the very resolution that established the commission had already declared Israel guilty of war crimes, including deliberately targeting civilians. The commission’s job was merely to provide “evidence” for that predetermined conclusion, and it duly produced a report so biased that its own lead author later repudiated it.

Thus no NGO with Israel’s best interests at heart should have cooperated with Goldstone. But B’Tselem didn’t just cooperate; it eagerly plied the commission with anti-Israel libels liked inflated civilian casualty figures (compare its figures to this). Indeed, as B’Tselem unblushingly admitted in January, whenever it’s uncertain whether casualties were civilian or combatant, it labels them civilian – then accuses Israel of excessive civilian casualties.

Or take Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. Its stated goals include eliminating Israel’s Jewish majority by relocating millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees to it. That’s an explicit provision of Adalah’s proposed “Democratic Constitution,” which even terms this a necessary condition for an “equal and democratic” society. In other words, Adalah deems Israel an undemocratic, apartheid state unless it agrees to voluntarily self-destruct.

Nor are B’Tselem and Adalah unique; they are merely two of dozens of similar organizations – all virulently anti-Israel, and all funded mainly by foreign governments, either directly or via foreign NGOs. As NGO Monitor reported in 2011, European governments spend more money “promoting civil society” in the Mideast’s only democracy than they do in all other Middle Eastern countries combined – $75 million to $100 million a year.

This is what truly concerns Netanyahu’s base. It’s why his last two coalitions tried to pass legislation limiting foreign funding for NGOs, and why his current coalition is expected to try again. And all the talk about Netanyahu’s “racism” has merely served as a smokescreen to obscure this very real problem.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post on May 28, 2015

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Israel’s unity government may prove a constitutional time bomb

That Israel will soon have a government is good news; almost any government would be better than the political dysfunction that has produced three elections in the past year. But aside from its existence, there’s little to like about this “unity” government.

The biggest problem isn’t that many important issues will perforce go unaddressed, though that’s inevitable given the compromises required when neither bloc can govern on its own. Nor is it the risk that the government will be dysfunctional even on “consensual” issues like rescuing the economy from the coronavirus crisis, though this risk is real, since both sides’ leaders will have veto power over every government decision.

Rather, it’s the cavalier way that Israel’s Basic Laws are being amended to serve the particular needs of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new partner, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz.

Though Israel’s Supreme Court wrongly claims the Basic Laws are a constitution, they were never intended as such by the parliaments that passed them. Indeed, some were approved by a mere quarter of the Knesset or less.

But they were intended as the building blocks of a future constitution should Israel ever adopt one. That’s why this handful of laws, alone of all the laws on Israel’s books, are deemed “Basic Laws,” and why each addresses a fundamental constitutional issue (the executive branch, the legislature, the judiciary, human rights, Israel’s Jewish character, etc.).

In other words, though they aren’t a constitution, they do serve as the foundation of Israel’s system of government. And tinkering with the architecture of any democratic system of government can have unintended consequences, as Israel has discovered before to its detriment.

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