WASHINGTON – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced deep concern on Saturday over a wave of anti-democratic legislation in Israel and in particular a bill proposing to limit donations to human rights organizations. Clinton also criticized the growing exclusion of women from Israel's public life.
In a closed session at the Saban Forum attended both by Israeli and American decision-makers Clinton addressed the issue of discrimination against Israeli women. She expressed concern for Israel's social climate in the wake of limitations on female public singing and gender segregation on public transport.
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Among the Israeli representatives taking part in the forum were Minister Dan Meridor, Opposition Chairwoman Tzipi Livni, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan and former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi.
Clinton, a longtime advocate for women's rights, noted she was shocked at the fact that some Jerusalem buses have assigned separate seating areas for women. "It's reminiscent of Rosa Parks," she said, referring to the black American woman who refused to give up her seat to white passengers in the 1950s.
Clinton in Myanmar (Photo: Reuters)
Referring to the decision of some IDF soldiers to leave an event where female soldiers were singing, she said it reminded her of the situation in Iran.
Clinton's comments drew extensive criticism in Israel. Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said in response, "these voices are totally exaggerated. Israel is a living, breathing liberal democracy." He added, "The issue of the exclusion of women and separation is unacceptable and must be stopped but to claim there is a threat on Israeli democracy is a big stretch."
Interior Minister Eli Yishai also rejected Clinton's statements. "Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. I assume that whatever will be done here will be within the measure of the law."
Minister Gilad Erdan proposed that "elected officials around the world examine their domestic problems first." He nevertheless said he shared the concern over the exclusion of women noting that such measures cause people to hate the Jewish religion. "I hope that government steps will demonstrate our commitment to equality between men and women."
This year's Saban Forum has been focusing mainly on issues related to Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Some members of the forum said that Clinton's statements about Israel stemmed from genuine fear for the country's future.