Netanyahu’s Salami Method

Using a classic authoritarian strategy, the Israeli right has quashed dissent and entrenched the occupation slice by slice.

Joshua Leifer
June 6, 2023

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Steakholder Foods in Rehovot, April 19, 2023.

Benjamin Netanyahu's Twitter page

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Last March, Likud Knesset member Ariel Kallner put forward a bill that would all but dismantle Israeli civil society. The legislation proposed a 65% tax on foreign government donations to nonprofits that work to influence Israeli policy; it also stipulated that such organizations be stripped of their tax-exempt status. Kallner’s bill would target leading Israeli human rights groups, including B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence, which receive a portion of their funding from US and European government bodies. By impeding the work of such groups, the Israeli right aims to silence critics who oppose the occupation and Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. But while a Knesset committee was set to consider the bill in late May, the law has since been tabled due to significant public pressure from the US, French, and German governments, whose grants to Israeli organizations would have been taxed under the bill.

Yet the bill’s withdrawal is not a defeat for Netanyahu’s government. “It will definitely be brought up again,” Avner Gvaryahu, co-director of Breaking the Silence—which collects testimonies of Israeli soldiers stationed in the occupied territories—told Jewish Currents. “Maybe they’ll lower the tax, or they’ll make the language more focused,” he said, but in the end, “the house always wins.” This two-step process is characteristic of Netanyahu’s legislative strategy. The formula is almost always the same: Right-wing coalition partners or Likud party members propose outlandishly draconian bills, a public outcry ensues, the government withdraws the bill, and then, at a later date, passes the bill in a modified, pared down, or less bluntly offensive form in the face of muted opposition. Israeli political commentators refer to this as the “salami method,” a phrase that was likely coined in the 1950s to describe the way Hungary’s communist regime slowly eliminated its opposition. What cannot be achieved in a single blow can instead be carried out gradually, the authoritarian Hungarian Communist leader Mátyás Rákosi once said, “like cutting up a salami, thin slice by thin slice.”

For a decade and a half, the salami method has been Netanyahu’s preferred mode of crushing internal Israeli dissent. The strategy has allowed successive Netanyahu-led governments to pass laws penalizing liberal and left-wing civil society organizations while avoiding the international censure that would come with an outright ban on human rights groups. “They want to shut down and silence criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians,” explained Jessica Montell, executive director of HaMoked: Center for Defense of the Individual, an NGO that provides legal aid to Palestinians living under military rule. “But they also want to be seen as a democracy, so they can’t just shut down the organizations.”

Instead, under Netanyahu’s leadership, the Israeli right has moved methodically to hamper the work of human rights groups that challenge Israeli policies, especially the occupation—and when such proposals have triggered public outcry, the right has adjusted by making its slices thinner. In 2011, for example, the Knesset passed a bill that allowed the government to impose fines on organizations that call for boycotts of Israeli institutions. Several years later, after civil society groups vocally criticized the measure and petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to seek relief from it, the Court struck down the part of the bill that would have allowed boycottees to sue for punitive damages, but upheld the rest of the law.

In another instance of this strategy in 2016, several right-wing Knesset members proposed new legislation aimed at delegitimizing Israeli human rights groups. Under a 2011 law, NGOs that receive at least half their budgets from foreign donations were already required to issue quarterly reports delineating their funding sources, but the 2016 bill required such NGOs to report their foreign funding on all public communications: “every letter we send to the army, every advertisement in the newspaper,” Montell said. An earlier version of the bill was even more extreme, requiring representatives of these NGOs to wear special tags and declare their funding sources when presenting before Knesset committees. But these latter requirements were scrapped, giving the final version of the bill an air of compromise; it soon passed in the Knesset while provoking little protest in the streets.

In addition to the right-wing clampdown on human rights groups, the settler movement has also employed a version of the salami method to entrench Israeli control over the occupied territories. In June 2020, for example, Netanyahu promised the annexation of several major West Bank settlements—Ariel, Ma’ale Adumim, and parts of the Etzion bloc—until the conditions of the Trump administration’s Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and the Gulf States, led him to hold off. Since then, Netanyahu and the settler movement have pursued their ultimate goal—the annexation of the entire West Bank—through alternative, and less visible, means. In late 2022, Netanyahu transferred significant authority over the West Bank to the leader of the far-right Religious Zionism party Bezalel Smotrich, whom he made a minister in the Defense Ministry. According to a recent paper by legal scholars Ronit Levine-Schnur, Tamar Megiddo, and Yael Berda, this transfer of power over the occupied territories from Israel’s military apparatus to its civilian government qualifies as annexation of those territories—even, they write, “without a formal declaration on the part of Israel that it has annexed the West Bank.” What Netanyahu and the settlers could not achieve through bombastic declarations of their intentions, they have brought about through more subtle maneuvering.

Viewed against this backdrop, Kallner’s NGO bill was simply too big and too broad to pass: the slice wasn’t small enough. “It was a very crudely drafted attack,” Montell said. Even Russia’s Vladimir Putin, she observed, only approved a 24% tax on foreign funding to NGOs—compared to Kallner’s 65%—as one of several anti-civil-society measures Russia took in the 2000s that bear a striking similarity to the recent Israeli bills. But as Breaking the Silence’s Gvaryahu noted, it is likely only a matter of time before the NGO bill, or another one very much like it, passes, especially since it remains part of the coalition agreement between Netanyahu’s Likud and the Kahanist Jewish Power party—in other words, it is officially on the current Israeli government’s agenda for the duration of its four-year term. If the past is any indication, a version of the NGO bill could very well pass salami-style, with a new wording that carves out a smaller slice.

As the current Netanyahu government faces its most substantial challenge—dismantling the country’s judiciary despite massive civil resistance—the salami method may once again be the government’s preferred strategy. The government may well pare the current proposal back to make it more acceptable. Parts of the plan to limit the power of the judiciary may be shaved off, specifically the “court override” plank, which would enable the Knesset to override Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority. In fact, Moshe Koppel, founder of the Kohelet Policy Forum—the Israeli think tank that has led the push for the judicial reforms—has openly said that he always knew only an attenuated version of the laws would pass. “Nobody ever thought there was going to be an override,” he said during an event hosted by the Orthodox outreach group Aish HaTorah. In a separate interview with the right-wing website JNS, Koppel explained his long-term strategy. “From a demographic standpoint it seems like the right is only going to get stronger,” he said, “so if this necessary reform doesn’t happen this time . . . it’ll happen in two years or five years.”

It appears to be the right’s hope—and perhaps its plan—that when the judicial overhaul comes up again for a vote, its ambitions will appear more modest, its articulation less inflammatory than when it was first introduced, allowing it to pass. Like the quashing of civil society and the annexation of the West Bank, the disassembling of the judiciary may not happen in a flash of light, but slowly, through a series of thin yet devastating slices.

Joshua Leifer is a Jewish Currents contributing editor and a member of the Dissent editorial board. His essays and reporting have also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Jacobin, +972 Magazine, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book about American Jewish identity. He lives in New Haven, CT, where he is a history PhD student.