Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made headlines in Israel over the weekend after criticizing some widely argued domestic debates as threatening Israeli democracy.
Ruffling feathers even further, Clinton also compared Israel to its arch enemy Iran, from which it could potentially be facing an existential battle over the Islamic Republic's march toward nuclear weapons.
The liberal Israeli paper Ha'aretz reports:
Three minutes of Q&A at the end of a closed lecture delivered by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Saturday at the Saban Forum in Washington exposed deepening gaps between the governments of Israel and Washington.
If up to now differences between Washington and Jerusalem centered on the peace process or the future of the settlements, it appears that the U.S. government is now worried about whether democratic values are shared by the two states.
A source who was present at Clinton's lecture says that the Secretary of State spoke at length about the Iranian nuclear program, and the need to advance negotiations with the Palestinians. In these connections, the source said, Clinton said little new. The new twist came when she responded to questions. "What does Israel need to do in order to help the U.S. help it?" one of the participants queried.
Clinton, whose long-standing commitment to Israel is not in question, sighed, and launched into a three-minute monologue that related to domestic matters in Israel. The secretary of state, who is considered one of the most popular politicians in the U.S., explained that she is astonished by the legislative initiatives in favor of restricting left-wing NGOs, as well as by the exclusion of women from public spaces and other phenomena.
The Israeli Knesset has been debating several versions of a bill which would restrict foreign governments from funding non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Israel. Though hiding behind the title "NGO," many of these organizations are highly political and have enormous sway over the international image of Israel.
Supporters of the legislation point to evidence that these NGOs are active participants in political warfare against Israel and provide skewed information used by those calling for boycotts of Israel who accuse Israel of being an "Apartheid" state. One egregious example is the now discredited Goldstone Report on Israel's incursion into Gaza three years ago to root out Hamas militants terrorizing residents of southern Israel. The Goldstone Report based its findings on largely false information provided by these same NGOs whose funding is being debated.
According to NGO-Monitor, which investigated the NGOs money sources, many of these highly politicized organizations receive the bulk of their funding from European governments, some as much as 75% of their budgets, raising questions about foreign interference in domestic political processes. The bill would not restrict private individuals making charitable contributions to any NGO.
Besides criticizing the NGO issue being debated by democratically-elected lawmakers as threatening democracy, Clinton also raised concerns about two cases of discrimination against women. In one case, an ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem has been self-segregating, women moving to the back of the bus, and men sitting in front due to their beliefs.
Clinton said this reminded her of Rosa Parks who refused to yield her seat on a bus to a white man. However, Israel's Supreme Court has banned enforced separate seating.
She also said a recent case in which religious IDF soldiers walked out of a ceremony where a woman soldier was singing reminded her of extremist regimes. From Ha'aretz:
That seems more suited to Iran than Israel, Clinton opined. She said that she is at a loss to understand how such processes can occur in Israel. She told her listeners that Israel has little idea how badly such dynamics appear around the world. If you've ever wondered how discussions between herself and Netanyahu appear - that's what these images look like, Clinton quipped.
Responses from Israel were scathing as translated by Ynet:
Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said in response, "these voices are totally exaggerated. Israel is a living, breathing liberal democracy." He added, "The issue of the exclusion of women and separation is unacceptable and must be stopped but to claim there is a threat on Israeli democracy is a big stretch."
Interior Minister Eli Yishai also rejected Clinton's statements. "Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. I assume that whatever will be done here will be within the measure of the law."
Minister Gilad Erdan proposed that "elected officials around the world examine their domestic problems first." He nevertheless said he shared the concern over the exclusion of women noting that such measures cause people to hate the Jewish religion. "I hope that government steps will demonstrate our commitment to equality between men and women."
If Clinton said anything about Egypt to the closed forum, it was not reported. To now, the White House has applauded that democratic process and said it wants the military to handover power to a civilian government as soon as possible. Why is Israel's democracy the brunt of criticism with kudos going to next-door-neighbor Egypt, whose election results so far raise questions about what kind of democracy that country will eventually be?