Threats to democracy

Joseph Aaron

When 200 missiles are fired into Israel from Gaza in the span of a couple of hours, I do understand that it’s hard to worry about things like democracy.

A country has to survive before concerning itself with the nature of the country. But that’s the thing. When something like the attacks from Gaza occurs, that is not a threat to the survival of Israel. Yes, it makes life hell for lots of people, sometimes results in deaths, sometimes in injuries, is not a tolerable or acceptable situation. But it is not a nation threatening situation.

Much too much do we much too often make every threat to Israel, every challenge to Israel, out to be the end of the world, when it is not. And we need not allow ourselves to be so concerned about dealing with outside forces that we forget to deal with internal threats, some very real threats to the very nature of Israel’s democracy.

I can hear the rolling of the eyes of all the right wingers out there. Here Joe goes again, criticizing Israel. But you know something, you only criticize someone if you care about them, indeed if you love them. I think one of the greatest lies of our time is that the right wing, the never give up one inch of land, the peace is not possible, crowd are the true lovers of Israel. That, in a word, is bull.

I first visited Israel back in 1975, indeed spent a full year back then volunteering on a kibbutz. I have been back numerous times, sometimes for lengthy stays. And so the lunatics like Sheldon Adelson who proclaim themselves the greatest defenders of Israel because he is a right wing extremist, but who says he wouldn’t mind if Israel ceased to be a democracy, are in fact a threat to what Israel is meant to be.

I keep bringing up the notion that democracy is in danger in Israel not because I enjoy doing so, indeed the hell I pay for doing so is no picnic, but because things are happening that truly are frightening and especially so because when something happens like this week in the attacks from Gaza, we focus on that shiny object and can’t be bothered with worrying about threats to democracy.

But two days after the attacks, Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire. Existential threat over. Not that there won’t be more eruptions from Gaza, there definitely will be, but the point is that Israel, with its overwhelming military power, can very easily handle anything and everything Hamas throws at it.

I am, however, not so sure Israel can continue to handle the chipping away of democratic norms, especially when you have a prime minister who has been in power for ten years, seems destined to be in power forever and indeed is working right now to strip Israel’s president of some of his power in deciding who to ask to form the next government. Yet another threat to the democratic norms that have kept Israel the only democracy in the Middle East for 70 years.

And did you hear how right now Israel’s Knesset is considering a cultural loyalty bill, which would allow funds to be withheld from cultural organizations that are deemed disloyal to the state of Israel.

Cultural loyalty? Disloyal to the state? Deemed disloyal by who? This is the kind of thing banana republics do, that the Jewish state must never do. And yet it is but the latest in a long series of steps the Bibi government has undertaken in the last couple of years to curtail free speech, decide who can say what, and punish anyone and everyone who says or thinks things Bibi doesn’t agree with, from stopping American Jews at the airport to interrogate them about their political views, to stripping funding from all kinds of organizations, to shutting down a TV network that criticized him, to so much scarier more.

And what is with Bibi’s love for and embrace of dictators? The Jewish state is supposed to live by Jewish values, Jewish morals, Jewish principles, the Jewish state is supposed to live by and adhere to Jewish, and yes, higher standards.

Which means who we make friends with matters. Which means we need to be the first to stand up to thugs and dictators and autocrats, not to stand with them. And yet Bibi seems to go out of his way to be buddies with people the rest of the world shuns. He recently welcomed to Israel two of the most odious leaders in the world, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Viktor Orban of Hungary, Duterte being someone who has overseen the cold blooded murders of thousands of his own citizens and has engaged in massive corruption; and Orban being someone who is systematically stripping the country of all democratic institutions, curtailing freedom of the press, ending the independence of the judiciary and engaging in massive corruption And it took Bibi about two minutes after  Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil before he not only heartily congratulated him, but vowed to attend his inauguration.

Bolsonaro is an extreme right winger who supports torture, admires dictatorial regimes, expresses hostile and racist views of women and minorities, has won the endorsement of crazies like Marine Le Pen of France.

But perhaps worst of all in the hugging of murderous thugs is that after the crown prince of Saudi Arabia ordered the murder of a journalist in Turkey, Bibi went out of this way to, behind the scenes, vouch for, advocate on behalf of the crown prince.

Netanyahu personally called senior Trump administration officials to express support for Mohammed bin Salman after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, The Washington Post reported.

The newspaper quoted “people familiar with the calls” as saying that Netanyahu defended bin Salman, saying his effective leadership of Saudi Arabia had important strategic implications.

Israel and Saudi Arabia share intelligence about their mutual enemies, especially Iran. Netanyahu is also banking on bin Salman to advance recognition of Israel in the Arab world. So to hell with thou shalt not murder, to hell with Jewish values.

A democracy also doesn’t stick its nose into the affairs of another country. And yet both Bibi and Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer praised Trump in the wake of the massacre in Pittsburgh, even though many blame his inflammatory rhetoric for inspiring the murderer.

No less than Abraham Foxman, the former national director of the Anti-Defamation League who is known for his closeness to the Israeli establishment, said that defending Trump then was wrong. “I think Israeli officials and Israeli representatives should come and stand in solidarity with the American Jewish community in a time of pain and anguish and tragedy. I don’t think they should come to the United States and stand in solidarity with the President of the United States, especially during an election period. I can thank Trump on one hand for the good things that he’s done, but that does not take away from me the right to be able to criticize him on issues of value and that I feel are part of our tradition.”

Foxman said that Trump was not aware of how his rhetoric, often derisive of his opponents and of some minorities, influences extremists, but that he nonetheless bore some of the responsibility for the actions of extremists. “He is part of the problem, because of his rhetoric, his focusing on issues — it’s the unforeseen consequences of his ideology, of his political philosophy. He is a demagogue.” And Israel, a democracy, should not be in the business of publicly defending a demagogue, he said.

And, of course, there is the overwhelming and obscene political corruption that permeates Israeli politics, with former Israeli presidents and prime ministers in jail, all kinds of Cabinet officials indicted and indeed with the Israeli police right now recommending criminal bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges against Netanyahu in not one but two corruption investigations.

But worst of all we just learned that Israel’s very security might be threatened by corruption. Not by Gaza but by sweetheart deals and underhanded dealing.

We learned that the Israeli police has recommended the indictment of one of Netanyahu’s closest confidants and three others from his inner circle in a sprawling bribery case involving the multibillion-dollar purchase of submarines and missile boats from Germany.

The police said they had sufficient evidence to charge David Shimron, a second cousin of Netanyahu’s as well as his personal lawyer, with bribery and money laundering. Shimron, they said, had exploited his “status and closeness to the prime minister” to promote the submarine purchase on behalf of Michael Ganor, an Israeli agent working for ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems, the shipyard that build the vessels. In exchange, Shimron was paid a “reward for success” for “opening doors” and influencing officials in favor of the deal, the police said.

Also accused is David Sharan, who was chief of staff to Netanyahu from late 2014 to 2016. The police said Sharan received bribes from Ganor from 2013, when Sharan was an aide to the minister of finance, until 2016, though the money was paid through other businessmen to conceal the connection.

The police recommended indicting two others from Netanyahu’s inner circle: Avriel Bar-Yosef, a reserve brigadier general and former deputy head of the National Security Council, who was Netanyahu’s nominee to be his national security adviser until the scandal broke; and Eliezer (Modi) Zandberg, who was Netanyahu’s appointee as chairman of Keren Hayesod, an organization that leads fund-raising efforts for Israel in dozens of countries. Bar-Yosef is accused of helping Ganor get hired to represent ThyssenKrupp and then taking a cut of his fees. Zandberg is accused of using his influence to help Ganor with access to officials and inside information in exchange for payoffs.

It’s all a little complicated but it is very serious. It’s about those closest to Bibi using their connections to distort decisions and influence from whom Israel buys military equipment vital to protecting its security. That isn’t just run of the mill corruption but the kind of corruption that can endanger the ability of Israel to defend itself.

As Ehud Barak, the former prime minister and Israel’s most decorated soldier, put it, the indictments amount to the “collapse and betrayal of state security.” Of Bibi’s part in it, he added, “If he knew, he belongs in prison. If he didn’t, he is not qualified to run a state.” Treasonous, disgraceful and contemptible.”

You worry about Gaza all you want. Me, it’s the threats to Israel’s democracy that keep me up at night.

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