At the end of the day, the thing that will be remembered from Benjamin Netanyahu’s second premiership term is the harm to Israel’s democracy, freedom of expression, the media and the courts. In his three years in office, Israel's democracy went back 30 years. Instead of flourishing, it’s becoming defensive and pale.
The prime minister is undermining the power of regular folk and boosting politicians at the people's expense. This is the entire aim of the so-called silencing law and of the series of laws against the court. No more and no less than that.
Prime Minister Netanyahu vowed Monday afternoon that he will safeguard democracy. We would be laughing if it wasn’t so sad; the executioner preaching against the execution. The PM said he would be responsible for ensuring that distortions in Israel’s freedom of expression, which is not afforded to all members of society, will be undertaken in line with a liberal, responsible spirit.
Responsibility? Liberal spirit? What’s the connection between the limited expression of certain population sectors and a law that would cut off journalists’ hands? A law that Knesset Member Uri Orbach said would keep journalists silent? And what is the logical connection between the frustration of certain population groups who make claims of under-exposure in the media and the attempt to silence reporters?
I’m writing this a day after the so-called “silencing law” passed the first reading at the Knesset. This legislation aims to silence Israel’s screaming and kicking media, which butcher sacred cows and turn Israel’s democracy into a model for the entire enlightened world.
The French say “Cherchez la femme”, that is, look for the woman when seeking the motive for a grave crime. The motive for the law is not to balance, but rather, to restrain. Netanyahu wishes to restrain the investigative journalists and curb those who seek and find unpleasant materials about him and other members of his family. The Netanyahu family wishes to sleep well at night.
How can Netanyahu explain his endorsement of the law without the personal motive, which seeks to scare off investigative journalists looking into his past, current and future actions? And how can Ehud Barak explain his surprising arrival at the Knesset late in the evening (he was never a distinguished parliamentarian) only to vote in favor of the law for scaring journalists, if not based on a personal, vengeful motive – the desire to curb those who exposed the illegal maid he employed at his home, the extent of his business and the size of his apartment?
No longer afraid
The defense minister’s close associates did not even hide these motives. Barak was hurt, they said. He was smeared, insulted and persecuted. They wrote terrible things about him over the years, slammed him from all directions, criticized him, and counted how much money he has in his bank account. So now he came to take his revenge, disregard everyone, and wash away his unpleasant humiliation with one gesture, as he likes to do.
There are many other ministers who chose to disappear or grow silent. Begin and Meridor, who spoke out against the bill earlier – where were they? And what about Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who remained silent on this debate? He is the minister responsible for educating Israel’s children for democracy and good citizenship; he is supposed to explain to them that a free press is the oxygen of a model state.
What are civics teachers supposed to feel today? What kind of message did they get from their minister, the man who wishes to be prime minister one of these days but shows no hint of leadership or independence? He would have done well to learn from his Likud colleague, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, who objected to the law despite the coalition leaders’ order to back the legislation.
Former Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik, who also disappeared during the vote, should also learn from her rival, Rivlin. Itzik dreams of being our president one of these days. Yet one who wishes to be a president cannot afford to be absent, as an opposition member no less, from a vote on a bill that harms democracy.
Yet Itzik was not the only opposition member to disappear. Where were the Arab Knesset members (the ones who always complain of silencing)? Where were members of Kadima?
The fight against the silencing law has not ended yet. However, the message conveyed by the voting patterns of our leaders is one of threats, scaremongering and unprecedented political belligerence against those who are supposed to work fearlessly and without economic cost-benefit considerations.
The elected members of the 18th Knesset don’t want to be afraid anymore. They want others to be afraid. They want the journalists to be afraid, and later they will seek to make sure that all of us, Israel’s citizens, fear their power and judgment, which approves laws that have nothing to do whatsoever with freedom of thought or expression.