Tel Aviv — Lawmaker Danny Danon pauses during an interview to scribble an important note to himself. A question about a derogatory portrayal of him in the left-leaning daily newspaper Haaretz gave him an idea: “I must remember to use this article in my campaign.”
In the piece in question, columnist Gideon Levy wrote that Danon “will be big, the sugar of the Israeli right.” But Levy insisted that Danon “doesn’t know a thing about democracy” and likened him to Senator Joseph McCarthy. Danon was exultant: An attack by a prominent member of the “extreme radical left,” the lawmaker said, is proof that he’s on the right track.
Danon is the best known of the Israeli right’s new fantastic four. The driving force behind the recent wave of Knesset legislation that has shocked many Israelis who fear it could undermine democracy — including President Shimon Peres, who has said that some bills make him “ashamed” — has been four Knesset freshmen: Yariv Levin, Tzipi Hotovely, Ofir Akunis and Danon.
All are members of the ruling Likud party, but they take positions significantly to the right of the party leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — and pride themselves on doing so.
“I see myself whispering in his right ear, telling him where he should stay,” Danon, the most prominent of them, said on December 20, shortly after submitting a bill to precondition driver’s license applications on an oath of loyalty to the state.
Netanyahu is open, with reservations, to the idea of a two-state solution, but the Likud freshmen are resolute that there must never be a Palestinian state. And while this is a classic Likud position, revised only in 2009 by Netanyahu, observers say that their domestic agenda is new to Israel and to their party.
“The Likud was a lot more liberal,” said Haifa University political scientist Doron Navot, referring to the party’s historic domestic positioning. On internal issues, the legacy of the Likud’s founder and longtime leader, Menachem Begin, was a “strong supreme court and strong minority rights,” he said. “There is a new idea of what democracy means — the rule of the majority, and that’s it.”
Among the measures that these young legislators are pushing —and that critics say threaten democratic discourse — are a law imposing sanctions on Israelis who speak out in support of boycotting settlements and a bill to increase financial penalties for libel by six-fold, including cases in which the plaintiff cannot prove any damages. Major Israeli media figures protest that the libel law will cripple reporting in Israel. Both measures enjoy the backing of Netanyahu. Another bill that the four back would heavily tax donations to not-for-profit groups whose work is deemed to be “political.” The bill would also outlaw donations to such nongovernmental organizations from foreign governments. That measure, which is likely to affect a wide swath of groups engaged in human rights and social advocacy, is expected to receive Cabinet approval soon.