Leading article: Criticism is not betrayal

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The Independent Online

A spirit of intolerance is on the move in Israel. Yesterday, in the latest victory for Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party, members of the Knesset voted to establish a parliamentary panel of inquiry into the funding of a group of human rights organisations.

The targets of the panel will include B'tselem and Breaking the Silence, groups that have brought to light abuses by Israeli soldiers towards Palestinians in recent years. Machsom Watch, whose activists monitor the conduct of the Israeli military towards Palestinian citizens at checkpoints, is also to be investigated. Yisrael Beiteinu argues that such groups actively help to "delegitimise" Israel internationally. They also allege (without providing any evidence) that such groups are funded by "anti-Zionist agencies" abroad.

The practical implications of this new panel (presuming it eventually passes all the Knesset hurdles) should not be exaggerated. It is not expected to result in human rights organisations being closed down or activists jailed. Such groups are already transparent when it comes funding. The panel is more likely to provide Yisrael Beiteinu with a bully pulpit, from which to air their conspiracy theories and to label internal critics of the Israeli state as "unpatriotic".

Yet that is not to say it is harmless. The panel will help whip up an already dangerously advanced atmosphere of intolerance within Israel towards those groups that question the state's activities and expose wrongdoing by the military. The veteran activist Naomi Chazan has described the activities of the Israeli right as "a very pernicious attempt to stifle alternative voices and... to equate criticism with betrayal".

The irony is that a democracy like Israel ought to be proud of the presence of these vociferous human rights organisations. Israel's toleration of internal criticism is one of its great strengths in a region littered with repressive regimes and autocracies. Such organisations do not undermine the state's legitimacy, but rather reinforce it. Yisrael Beiteinu might imagine it is helping to protect Israel through its attempts to stigmatise criticism, but in fact it is achieving the very opposite.