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Tuesday News Bulletin 06/06/23

Welcome to the Tuesday News Bulletin! Every Tuesday, we publish original reporting on Israel/Palestine by our staff and contributors, which goes directly to our newsletter subscribers. The Tuesday News Bulletin also serves as a forum for aggregating stories Jewish Currents staffers are tracking, with plenty of links to other publications so you can keep up with everything happening on our beats.

This article is by contributing editor Joshua Leifer.

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

Benjamin Netanyahu's Twitter page

June 6th, 2023

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.

On June 6th, Palestinians participate in the funeral of two-year-old Muhammad Tamimi in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh. The Palestinian toddler was near the entrance to his home when Israeli forces shot him in the head. Tamimi’s father, who was with the child, was also injured in the shooting. Tamimi is one of 27 Palestinian children that Israeli forces have killed so far in 2023.

Oren Ziv/Activestills

As part of the Tuesday News Bulletin, Jewish Currents is publishing a photograph taken by members of Activestills every week, archiving ongoing dispossession and resistance from the river to the sea. You can find more information on this collaboration here.

Here’s what else we’re tracking:
  • Yesterday, Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen demanded that the Biden administration make public a classified government report on Israel’s killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. “I strongly believe that its public release is vital to ensuring transparency and accountability,” the senator said in a statement. The report was compiled by a US army lieutenant general tasked with bolstering cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian Authority forces. According to Van Hollen, the document provides “important insights into the circumstances that led to Shireen Abu Akleh’s wrongful death.”
  • In New York, hundreds of people protested against Israeli government ministers, who were in the city for a parade held Sunday called Celebrate Israel and a conference held by the Jerusalem Post. Most of the protesters were Israeli expatriates who oppose the Netanyahu government’s push to gut the power of the Israeli Supreme Court. On Monday, demonstrators disrupted Economy Minister Nir Barkat’s speech at the conference with chants of “shame.” Protesters also gathered on a Manhattan street where Knesset member Simcha Rothman, one of the architects of the judicial overhaul legislation, was walking after a meeting with the Jewish Agency. Rothman snatched a megaphone out of the hands of a protester, who then filed a police report against Rothman for harassment.
  • On Sunday, two prominent American Jewish groups—the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and the UJA-Federation of New York—sponsored a conference promoting Israeli settlements. The Forward asked the groups about their decision to sponsor the Arutz Sheva Jerusalem Conference, which was held in New York this weekend by Arutz Sheva, a right-wing pro-settler media network in Israel; in response, a JFNA spokesperson said that “the federations network did not provide any funding or services to the conference, did not ask to be listed as a sponsor and had not seen a copy of the program before agreeing to participate.” But at the event, Eric Fingerhut, the head of the JFNA, said he was “proud” that his organization was a sponsor of “this important conference,” which featured discussions about boosting economic development in West Bank settlements. The JFNA has previously sent millions of dollars to Israeli settlers for “humanitarian relief and rehabilitation services,” though the group says its policy is to not fund West Bank settlement construction.
  • The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism (IHRA WDA) has been cited 53 times as the premise for firings, rescinded job offers, canceled public events, and disciplinary procedures in Europe, according to a new report on IHRA’s impact on free speech by the European Legal Support Center (ELSC). The IHRA definition is controversial because it suggests that some criticisms of Israel in some contexts should be understood as anti-Jewish bigotry. “The ‘contemporary examples of antisemitism’ attached to IHRA WDA effectively redefine antisemitism by wrongly conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism,” the ELSC report states, arguing that the definition has been used to suppress Palestinian human rights advocacy. “While [IHRA WDA is] being branded as ‘non-legally binding,’ the definition is being interpreted and used by governments and public and private actors as if it was law,” the report notes.
  • Republican Congressman Mike Lawler introduced legislation that would prohibit the federal government from funding colleges and universities that “promote antisemitism” and criticism of Israel. Lawler’s legislation uses the IHRA definition of antisemitism to delineate what would be unacceptable speech on campus. The bill is in part a response to a recent commencement speech at the City University of New York’s law school that criticized Israel’s human rights abuses against Palestinians. The bill is co-sponsored by eight other Republicans.