Sunday, June 12, 2016

Death Watch for Democracy in Israel and Turkey?

Haaretz: "By methodically eroding liberal democracy, Netanyahu and Erdogan could endanger their states' domestic and international legitimacy. At least if the current diplomatic moves bear fruit they’ll have each other."

Louis Fishman, May 25, 2016-Haaretz

For six months Turkey and Israel have been negotiating to normalize the relations that deteriorated so swiftly following the controversial 2010 Turkish flotilla to Gaza, in which nine Turkish citizens died in clashes with Israeli naval commandos. As the sides inch ever closer together, both countries’ leaders—the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu—seemed to have come to the conclusion that regional interests must trump their own, considerable personal and national pride. What the two leaders don’t explicitly acknowledge is the growing – and depressing - similarity between the two countries’ political culture.
The renewal of ties that now appears on the horizon comes at a time when both countries are showing worrying signs of the erosion of their democratic character. Over the last few weeks, the news reports emerging from both Turkey and Israel point to governments that have crossed red lines, with failed oppositions unable to keep the system in check. In fact, both countries, which for years were propped up by the U.S. as the only two “democracies” in the Middle East, are at a critical turning point, despite differences in scope and substance. 

When Netanyahu recently ousted his Defense Minister, Moshe Yaalon, in favor of ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman, Yaalon returned the favor in his resignation speech, highlighting what he called the “extremist and dangerous elements [that] have taken over Israel and the [governing] Likud Party.” He vowed to return to politics after a time-out “to compete for the national leadership of Israel.” Following on, former PM Ehud Barak declared that Israel “has been infected with the seeds of fascism.”

The recent straws that broke Yaalon’s back relate to signs that the social and political consensus upholding critical liberal values (such as the fair and equal application of the law, the disavowal of racist attitudes and legislation) seem to be breaking down.

The most dramatic example was the wave of public and lawmaker support enjoyed by a soldier involved in the extrajudicial killing of an incapacitated Palestinian. Disgusted, Yaalon spoke out against the shows of solidarity that reached up to the PM himself.

The validity of Yaalon’s assessment has been strengthened by Lieberman’s first legislative focus in office: the introduction of the death penalty for terrorists but only to be applied to military courts, effectively excluding its application against Jews. The areas of culture, education and civil society are also under ideological surveillance: the funding for leftist and human rights organizations is being targeted, and “loyalty bills” proposed which aim to cut funds to artists and theaters who criticize the state.

The Labor party’s inability to offer an alternative to the Likud and its coalition, thanks to its own infighting and desperately weak electoral traction, means there are fewer obstacles preventing the deterioration towards an oppressive state.

In this sense, the Labor party greatly resembles the Turkish opposition in parliament, the Republican People’s Party (CHP). The CHP attracts a solid 25% of the Turkish electorate but has no mandate and no leverage thanks to its inability to attract communities beyond its core secular Kemalist base.

Although Israel is progressing down the path Turkey has already trod – towards silencing the opposition and hounding competing ideologies out of the system – the comparison breaks down when it comes to the figure of the head of the government/state. PM Netanyahu is not working for a complete transformation of the system: Rather, after two decades of political maneuvering, he has managed to solidify a strong hold over the state’s institutions. This is quite different from Erdogan’s quest to rewrite the constitution and transform the state into a presidential system, in what many critics, both in Turkey and abroad, describe as a complete transformation of Turkey to an authoritarian state.

For these critics, Erdogan’s recent replacing Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu with his confidante Binali Yildirim was just another sign that Turkey’s days as a democracy are numbered.

But the kiss of death for Turkish democracy could actually come from another legislative effort. The government succeeded last Friday to pass a bill lifting the parliamentary immunity of lawmakers facing legal challenges, primarily aimed at prosecuting the 59 MPs of the mostly Kurdish HDP party, the third largest party in parliament. There are numerous current cases that accuse the HDP of supporting terrorism and working against the state. Readings of the bill were marked by fist fights within the legislative chamber itself. Even though some opposition CHP parliamentarians could also be subject to prosecution for the crime of insulting President Erdogan, some CHP MPs themselves voted for the bill, presenting the ruling AKP with a major victory (some explained that this was a tactical move aimed at blocking it from going to a national referendum).

Not surprisingly, right-wing parties in Israel too have sought—albeit unsuccessfully—to lift the immunity of Arab MPs, such as Haneen Zoabi, whose candidacy was saved by the Supreme Court after the Election Committee tried to ban her from running. Just as in Turkey, center-leftist nationalist—or if you prefer Zionist—MPs voted with the government against Palestinian lawmakers. Three Arab MPs including Zoabi were suspended by the Knesset two months ago for meeting with the families of slain Palestinian terrorists (in a precise parallel one of the HDP members faces charges relating to her visit to a family of a Kurdish suicide bomber).

Here, regarding relations with each state’s ethnic national minority, Turkey and Israel are the most comparable: Most Jews in Israel don’t recognize the possibility of building political coalitions with the state’s Palestinian citizens and Turks in Turkey likewise regarding ethnic Kurds. In both countries these minorities are often perceived as tantamount to a fifth column. However, a center-left party solely made for Jews, or one that gives precedence to Turks, limits its own electoral base, in turn strengthening the rising trend of exclusion, privilege and fascism in both countries.

Until now, the only party that worked to break this mode in Turkey was the HDP, built on various coalitions of Kurds and Turks, Muslims and Armenians (with Jewish and Greek support as well), Greens, Socialists and LGBT activists. Its remarkable success last June however was met with a campaign of delegitimation and their MPs in the very near future could even find themselves behind bars.

Nevertheless, its model of coalition building can provide some hope for Jews and Arabs supporting a new political and social discourse in Israel, working together for a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Arab-dominated Joint List in Israel has worked to fill this gap, however, it still lacks the dynamism which led the HDP to its original victory, and like Turkey, Israel does not seem ready for real change. As long as the opposition Labor Party and the far-left Meretz are unable to reconceptualize Israel as a state of all its citizens, it too, like the Turkish CHP, will remain largely irrelevant and on the way to oblivion.

While both countries can never claim to have been perfect democracies in the past as well —with Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands now going into its 49th year, and Turkey’s long history of oppressing the Kurds—the recent rise of intolerance in their societies, marked by a methodical disregard for human rights and democratic values by their governments, could end up endangering the international and domestic legitimacy of both states. But at least, if the current diplomatic moves bear fruit, they’ll have each other.

This article appeared in Haaretz on April 25, 2016. Click here for the link