If there is one theme that PM Netanyahu’s opponents are banging away at – and that includes not just his political opposition, but most of the mainstream media in Israel and a small army on social media – it is that he is “destroying democracy,” or even trying to turn Israel into a dictatorship. If you don’t believe me, just google “Israel democracy Netanyahu” and you will get pages and pages of the same old … stuff.
Democracy, in the broadest sense of the term, means that the citizens of a state determine its policies by voting. Usually they vote for representatives to run things according to their understanding of what’s best for everyone, like parliaments or senators and congressmen, prime ministers or presidents. They grant these representatives power for a limited period of time, and then review their performance by holding elections.
Different countries have developed different systems for doing this, and some are better than others. Israel has a system of proportional representation by political party, which has some theoretical advantages but one big disadvantage: it doesn’t work. We have had three elections in about one year and none of them has enabled the formation of a government coalition.
The system is what is preventing us from having a functional democracy, not Bibi Netanyahu. Netanyahu’s Likud party got a plurality of seats in the Knesset, although no one party ever gets a majority. His bloc, which means the Likud plus some religious and right-wing parties is short of a majority, too. So why doesn’t the opposition have a majority? Because it has two parts: the part composed of the Blue and White party and a few other parties on the (more or less) Zionist Left, and the part which is the 15 seats held by anti-Zionist Arab parties.
Not one of the Arab legislators will agree that Israel should be a Jewish state in any sense of the word. The most moderate would prefer it to be a “state of its citizens” like the USA, for example. The slightly less moderate would like it to become a binational state, while the rest are Islamists, or Palestinian or pan-Arab nationalists. I like to think that the political forces that produced them are not an expression of the true attitudes of Israel’s Arab citizens, but I’m not sure.
Most of Blue and White’s leaders could not bring themselves to include the Arab parties in the coalition (would you?), but apparently they are not averse to forming a minority government that depends on their votes. Our system allows a coalition of a minority of the members of the Knesset, as long as they don’t lose a vote of confidence.
This would mean that the Arab parties would have a veto over all the actions of the government. Given their ideologies, that is unacceptable. And at least three members of the opposition agree with me, so this will not happen. There is a law, by the way, that says that someone who “[negates] the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” can’t sit in the Knesset, but the Supreme Court has prevented its application to Arabs.
The other alternative is to form a unity government in which the leaders of the two major parties would take turns at being Prime Minister. That is the direction we are going now, and they are negotiating terms – who will fill the various ministerial slots, who will be PM first and for how long, and so on.
At the same time, the opposition is trying to pass laws that will prevent Netanyahu from being PM at all, because he is under indictment for alleged corruption. In a way it is not ex post facto because he has not yet tried to form a government; but in a way it is, because the people voted with the understanding that he could.
It is also possible that if Netanyahu were to be offered the position of PM of a unity government, the Supreme Court will jump in and find a way to disqualify him. They have received petitions to this end, but they chose not to decide because until the moment that he actually tries to take the position, the issue is considered “theoretical.” The present law says that a Prime Minister can continue to serve when indicted, and only can be removed upon conviction. But here the situation is that he is presently PM of a caretaker government, and the government is about to change.
I should mention that some of the charges against Netanyahu appear justified, and some clearly don’t. It is also true that the behavior of the police and state prosecutor’s office during the three years of his investigation was reprehensible, bordering on criminal. There were daily leaks to hostile media, improper treatment of witnesses, and violations of privacy. In any event, he has not been convicted of anything.
Netanyahu says that the true danger to democracy is the combination of non-elected forces – the Attorney General (in Israel, he has far more power than the equivalent official in the US), the State Prosecutor, and the Supreme Court – acting against an elected Prime Minister. The selection of all of these is controlled to a great extent by one organization, the Bar Association.
It is also true that from an overall perspective, the people of Israel have consistently voted for a right-wing government in recent years, especially since the debacle of the Second Intifada. They didn’t always get one, as when Yitzhak Rabin promised that he wouldn’t talk to the PLO and then ended up on the White House Lawn with Arafat, or when the formerly right-wing Ehud Olmert took over from Ariel Sharon after his stroke, and tried to negotiate a withdrawal from virtually all of Judea and Samaria.
Today the explicitly left-wing parties like the Labor party that ruled Israel from its founding until 1977, have withered away to almost nothing. Since Menachem Begin’s victory, we’ve had a situation in which a usually right-wing prime minister and Knesset confronts not only political opposition, but also left-wing media, legal, cultural, and educational establishments. Blue and White, which has no real ideology other than a burning desire to oust Netanyahu, is supported by these groups.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu has been dealing with the coronavirus crisis appropriately, mostly following the guidance of the Health Ministry, which includes taking and enforcing unpopular decisions. His opposition, both in politics and the media, have been claiming that he is using the issue as a “pretext” to “seize authoritarian powers.” One writer even suggested that an order banning gatherings of more than 10 people was issued to prevent demonstrations! Their self-absorption is remarkable.
Bibi has been appearing on TV almost every evening, explaining the steps the government is taking and why. Personally, I find it reassuring and I think he is doing the right thing to calm a nervous public – and to influence them to comply with the rules. But his enemies claim that it is all done for looks. The fact is that anything that he does will irritate them – especially when he projects competence.
So what does democracy demand? Unfortunately, we can’t tell from our badly broken system. Until we can fix it maybe it would be better to ask which of the possible outcomes is best for our country at this difficult time. The answer is a unity government, which need not contain either the extreme Left or the Haredi Right, and which does not depend on the votes of anti-Zionist Arab politicians. And probably the best person to lead it (eat your hearts out, Bibi derangement people) is Binyamin Netanyahu.
My sense is that the majority of Israelis want the kind of unity government you describe. This does not mean we are going to get it.
This is another sign that the system is broken
I do not remember a time when there seemed such uncertainty on all sides.
Though I also believe Prime Minister Netanyahu’s continuing is the best option, I too have reservations about the way he has conducted his political campaigns, and am troubled that so many once close to him are so strongly against him.