Israeli parliament chief worried about democracy

Last Updated: Wed, Jul 27, 2011 22:40 hrs

Israel's parliamentary speaker on Tuesday expressed concern over the state of the country's democracy following a recent wave of legislation that was widely seen as an attempt to stifle dissent.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Reuven Rivlin said he was especially worried about any law that could undermine the rights of Israel's Arab minority.

"This is unacceptable, it is a danger to the existence of the state of Israel," he said.

A member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party, Rivlin takes a hard line when it comes to Palestinian demands that Israel withdraw from occupied territory in the West Bank.

At the same time, he is a fierce defender of the democratic rights of all citizens, including the 20 percent of the population who are Arabs.

Hard-liners in parliament have passed a series of laws in the past year that were seen as anti-Arab. One law requires non-Jewish immigrants to take a loyalty oath. The law does not apply to Jewish immigrants, who automatically receive citizenship under Israel's "Law of Return."

Earlier this month, parliament passed a law that would punish Israelis who call for boycotts of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Critics said the law, which allows those targeted by boycotts to sue for damages, infringed on the right to free speech. Opponents have already challenged the law in the Supreme Court.

A related bill calling for parliamentary investigations of Israeli human rights groups failed to pass.

Rivlin did not get into details on the specifics of the various bills, but said Israel must find the proper balance between being the Jewish state and being a democracy that respects everyone's rights.

"You can't have Israel as a Jewish country without it being a democratic country," he said. "It has to be a democratic state."

Rivlin lamented the charged atmosphere that often pervades the parliament. Debate between Arab and Jewish lawmakers sometimes devolves into nationalistic rhetoric. Last week, parliament revoked some privileges of an Arab lawmaker who joined a pro-Palestinian flotilla last year that tried to breach Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Without offering solutions, Rivlin said Arabs and Jews must find a way to get alone.

"All these phenomena prevent us from creating the real bridge that could bring peace," he said. "We are doomed to live together, we are destined to live together."

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