Shatil Spotlight: Combating Anti-Democratic Legislation

14 December 2023
Hovav Yannai

Shatil’s Center for Policy Change (CPC), which teaches organizations how to effect policy change and influence public opinion, has a new director: Hovav Yannai. Until his appointment as CPC Director in October, Yannai worked for seven years as a policy consultant with the CPC. His work this last year was fundamental in combating the anti-democratic policies of the current Israeli government, and we know it will only become more important as he joins Shatil.

When the current extremist far-right government came to power in Israel in November 2022, Yannai and several of his Shatil colleagues knew that the campaign to stop its legislative agenda would need to be fought in the streets and on social media as much as in the Knesset. They contacted NIF’s network of civil society organizations and began a coordinated response to the various threats to democracy and equality that this government tried to legislate.

“Initially, the government presented the judicial overhaul as a single legislative package, but was caught off-guard by the public’s response. We saw extraordinary anti-government protests”, says Yannai. Faced with these protests, the government devised a new strategy: the ‘Salami Method.’ This approach, similar to Poland’s gradual erosion of democratic rights, he explains, seeks to pass seemingly innocuous pieces of individual legislation, peice-meal. But, when combined, those pieces of legislation create a set of anti-democratic laws that grant the government outsized—even dictatorial—power.

Members of civil and human rights organizations immediately turned to the CPC for help understanding what was happening. Yannai and his colleagues gave detailed explanations about various other laws on the table that could, if passed, enable more corruption and less oversight of governmental decision making, which would compound the effect of legislation limiting the judiciary. 

Yannai’s focus paid off last year when a bill was proposed which would have taxed donations from foreign governments to Israeli NGOs at the overwhelming rate 65%— effectively ended that type of funding for many NGOs. Yannai immediately understood the threat this bill posed to human rights NGOs and alerted all of the affected organizations. Together, they planned a public response, raising awareness about the bill and rallied to prevent it from passing. Their efforts helped block the bill from ever being introduced to the Knesset.

To build on this success, Yannai and Ella Yedaya, Shatil’s National Programs Director, established the “Salami Method” WhatsApp group, which has nearly 900 members. The group helped participants—activists and leaders of civil rights organizations—see the bigger picture of what’s at stake for women, the LGBT community, Palestinian citizens of Israel, and other minority groups with each piece of anti-democratic legislation.

Since the horrific Hamas attack on October 7 and ensuing war, the CPC is reassessing the way it works and its focus going forward. At the same time, it hasn’t stopped watching the Knesset, advocating against new laws loosening restrictions on gun ownership and efforts to limit Israelis’ access to Arab news channels. CPC media consultants are also advising shared society organizations on their work to support de-escalation in mixed Jewish-Arab cities. 

In the coming months, the CPC, under Yannai’s leadership, will continue to help organizations prepare to act quickly to combat anti-democratic legislation. This is especially important now, during wartime, as the current government will have few qualms about using the war as an excuse to curtain basic freedoms.

On a personal level, this war has left Yannai deeply heartbroken by the immense suffering around him. In many ways, it reminds him of 1973, when Egypt’s surprise attack on Yom Kippur killed and wounded thousands of Israeli soldiers, but led to a lasting peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. He notes: “Just like we signed a peace agreement with Egypt five years after that war, I hope that this war too will lead to the creation of a political solution that affords all Palestinians and Israelis security and peace. I also hope this will lead to a renewed commitment to democratic values within society and in the Knesset.”