This is the seventh in an NYRblog series about the fate of democracy in different parts of the world.
This should be a year in which Israeli democracy is much on display. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been reconfirmed as head of the right-leaning Likud Party, seems to be pushing for early national elections; while candidates to lead the centrist Kadima Party, the main opposition party, are now campaigning for their March 27 primary. But even as the country prepares for its most important democratic exercise, a far-reaching series of laws now pending or already passed by the Knesset suggests Israel is moving in an alarmingly anti-democratic direction.
Consider the following: In January, the Knesset passed an amendment to a fifty-year-old law against “infiltrators”—persons crossing into Israel illegally. The original law targeted citizens and residents of “enemy states”—in other words, armed and unarmed Palestinian refugees slipping across the newly established border. The amendment removes the focus on “enemy state,” effectively criminalizing anyone seeking asylum in Israel—including thousands of refugees who have fled the genocide in Darfur and now face a minimum of three years of detention. The law also has no age bar, meaning that young children and the elderly can also be placed in detention. Yet despite protests from civil society activists and well-known public figures, who described the law as unbefitting a state founded by refugees, only eight of the Knesset’s 120 members voted against the amendment.