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Is Israel's democracy in danger?

Following the transparency bill and other legal and social moves, the European Union questions Israel’s democratic fiber.

Alarm bells went off in several European capitals when the Israeli Cabinet adopted the proposed transparency bill, tagging those Israeli associations that are mainly receiving their funding from foreign sources, to warn their Israeli interlocutors.

Almost every European Union government and a multitude of European foundations are contributing to Israeli human rights, nongovernmental organizations and peace organizations that conform to European values (Peace Now is an example).

A senior source in the Israeli Foreign Ministry in charge of EU relations told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that Israeli ambassadors in many EU capitals have sent alarming reports to the ministry about growing concern by senior European officials over what they perceive as deterioration in the strength of Israeli democracy.

The EU is Israel’s main trading partner. Israel’s special status agreements with Brussels are of strategic value to its economy, academia and scientific research. Europe’s political affinity for Israel is based on historic support as well as the kinship to Israel’s Western democracy. Relationships with some European countries, such as the Scandinavian countries, are strained by fundamental disagreements on the Palestinian issue and sharp criticism of Israel’s occupation and settlement policies. Yet the fundamental political-economic alliance with Israel has been sustained, despite the crisis in the Middle Eastern peace process and wars in which Israel has engaged.

This current questioning of Israel’s democratic fiber risks shaking the foundations of EU-Israel relations.

A senior source in the EU’s Brussels headquarters who spoke with Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity sounded worried in regard to the state of Israeli democracy. While attempting to downplay a possible imminent crisis in the relationship, she listed very concerning recent developments that cast a shadow on Israel’s democratic character. She said, “We always criticized the nondemocratic occupation in the West Bank, but were confident that Israel is ‘European’ when it comes to standards of democracy and freedom of speech. This confidence is shaken today, and privately we are raising the issue with Israeli officials.” According to the official, the EU has warned Jerusalem that if the association law passes, it would make funding of all Israeli institutions more difficult: “[The fate of] Israel’s human rights and peace policies are up to it to decide. We happen to be in favor of human rights and peace and will not allow the Israeli government to criticize us on the issue.”

The European concern over flaws in Israeli democracy is based on much more than the recent legislation concerning Israeli associations. It results also from criticism over Israeli official expressions of racism toward the Arab minority. The prime minister’s wish to pass a nationality law, emphasizing the Jewish nature of Israel more than its democratic one, is perceived as belonging to that context.

Additionally, governmental economic policies (mainly in the field of infrastructure development and education funding) that discriminate against the Israeli Arab population are severely criticized in Europe. The same goes for economically discriminating against Arab young people for not having served in the Israeli army. A related issue of grave concern to European officials is the greater role of religion in Israeli politics and legislation. The religious criticism of the Israeli High Court of Justice and the discrimination against women by all the religious parties are seen as a dangerous mix between state and religion. The racist rhetoric of religious zealots in the West Bank (such as chants ''Death to Arabs'' in demonstrations following terror attacks) adds to a disturbing picture with theocratic and nationalistic shadows.

The gruesome murder of the Palestinian Dawabsha family by a settler on July 31 and the positive and encouraging reactions to the accused killers — the West Bank hilltop youth, extreme right-wing young settlers — is viewed in Europe as a dangerous symptom of Jewish fundamentalism, not unlike extremist Muslim fundamentalism. These settler youths indeed have a messianic theocratic view of Israel and are highly motivated to bring about this vision through violence and chaos. They view anyone (Jewish or not) who does not accept their ideology of a religious state in greater Israel as an infidel, against whom the use of violence is legitimate. This is especially true for Arabs. The aim of these youngsters is to destroy Israel’s democracy; they are fervently opposed by HaBayit HaYehudi, the national religious party of Naftali Bennett, out of concern for his image.

Yet, Bennett does not have any love lost for Jews interconnecting with Arabs either. The ban imposed by the Ministry of Education on the high school study of the novel “Borderlife” by Dorit Rabinyan (about a love affair between a Jewish woman and a Palestinian man), over concerns that it would encourage intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews, was perceived by Europeans as a racist expression of the Israeli government.

The EU official told Al-Monitor that Brussels is monitoring these events and positions with greater concern over Israel’s democracy than in the past. Europe hopes that unlike flawed democracies in Eastern Europe or Turkey, the situation in Israel will not at this point impact the EU-Israel relationship.

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