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Israel's slipping democracy

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But being the most democratic nation in a region marked by despotism is not the same as being democratic. And recently, indications have accumulated that Israel is becoming more rather than less like its neighbors.

Earlier this summer, Israel's parliament, the Knesset, passed two troubling pieces of legislation: the first (which still awaits final ratification) exempts the state from compensating Palestinians harmed during Israel Defense Force (IDF) operations in the territories.

The second, aimed at curtailing the travel of Arab members of the Kenesset (MK), states that any Israeli who has visited an "enemy country" shall be considered a supporter of armed struggle against the Jewish state (unless proven otherwise), and will be prevented from running for parliament in the seven years following the visit.

That law's drafter, Zevulun Orlev, the head of the parliamentary faction of the National Religious Party, explained that the statute will prevent the election of "trojan horses" into the legislature. Arab MKs would now be forced "to decide between the Syrian parliament and the Israeli parliament." On the same day these votes took place, the Knesset's Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee extended the validity of a provision exempting police from videotaping interrogations touching on security matters. The extended immunity is good for four years.

One does not need to be a constitutional scholar to worry about a democracy that eliminates access to its courts, curtails the right to be elected, and chooses to protect its police rather than detainees. Since all these measures were widely popular with Israelis, it is worthwhile reiterating an obvious point: Democracy is not only about the rule of the majority. Rather, its essence lies in empowering the majority without allowing it to tyrannize the minority. Such a balancing act is possible only if a robust set of political rights is in place. A state that jettisons these in favor of national security will probably stay safe, but it will rarely stay democratic.

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