Today the State of Israel is squeezed between a public health emergency and political paralysis. All we’re missing is a security crisis. We’d better hope we don’t get one.
In the past few days the number of new Coronavirus cases seems to have decreased, due to the lockdown that was instituted before the holidays. But since the load on the healthcare system lags the new cases by a few weeks, it is now stretched to the breaking point. And we haven’t seen the full impact of the Sukkot holiday and especially Simchat Torah, which was yesterday. Now it is necessary to start returning children to school so that their parents can work; one hopes that this can be done without setting off another wave of the disease, as happened before.
We didn’t invite the Coronavirus into the country. It may be manmade, but not by Israelis. On the other hand, the political wounds are entirely self-inflicted. They are the fault of almost all the actors in Israel’s political circus.
Binyamin Netanyahu was one of the greatest of Israel’s Prime Ministers. In his tenure since 2009, Israel has managed to avoid major wars, and entered an era of unprecedented prosperity. Bibi weathered the era of Barack Obama, the most anti-Israel US president ever. Although he was unable to prevent Obama’s capitulation to the Iranian regime’s drive to obtain nuclear weapons, he has kept the pressure on against Iran’s nuclear program with a campaign of black operations and cyber warfare. He has also resisted Iran’s attempts to establish itself militarily in Syria and to transfer accurate missile technology to Hezbollah.
Arguably, President Trump’s decisions to recognize Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem and the Golan, his moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, and his numerous other pro-Israel initiatives, certainly owe something to Netanyahu’s influence. And the recent normalization agreements with several Arab nations, the results of years of diplomacy, may represent a breakthrough that presages the end of the Israeli-Arab conflict that has been simmering and sometimes boiling over since the founding of the state.
Netanyahu could have done more to prevent the rearmament of Hezbollah in Lebanon, for which we may yet pay the price. And there are social problems that he has not been able to solve, such as the high cost of living, especially housing and food. Many Israelis feel that he has neglected the security of the citizens of southern Israel, who have been exposed to rocket bombardments from Gaza since 2001. Still, it’s unclear that any of his opponents would have done better.
No, he didn’t “end The Occupation.” That is, he didn’t withdraw from Judea and Samaria and allow a Gaza-like terror state next door to Tel Aviv to come into being. And it is good that he resisted pressure to do this, because today Trump’s plan may provide a way to fulfil the goals of Yitzhak Rabin, to give autonomy to the Palestinian Arabs without surrendering strategically and spiritually important parts of the territories.
Today Netanyahu is under attack for alleged corruption and is being blamed for the government’s failure to overcome the Coronavirus. There are massive demonstrations in front of his homes, or – when a lockdown is in effect – around the country, calling upon him to “go,” to resign as PM. His corruption trial is underway, though according to law he cannot be forced to leave his position unless he is convicted of a serious charge.
At this point, a little historical background. In 1977, an electoral revolution kicked out the incompetent, paternalistic, dictatorial, and corrupt Labor regime that had ruled Israel since its founding. Israelis were angry about the failure of the government to respond to intelligence information about the imminent attack by Egypt and Syria in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In addition, Israel’s Mizrachi citizens, who had been arriving en masse since about 1950, were tired of being almost totally excluded from the political power structure and the cultural life of the country.
There have been two Labor PMs elected since then. In 1992, Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords and revived the moribund PLO, ushering in an era of increased incitement and terrorism. And in 2000, Ehud Barak’s failed attempt at a final status agreement led directly to the bloody Second Intifada, in which more than a thousand Israelis died in exploding buses, pubs, and pizza restaurants.
Since then, the Labor Party and the Left in general have entirely lost the confidence of the voters. But the left-leaning elite that dominated the country in the first 29 years of its existence, those politicians, academics, cultural and media personalities, and lawyers and judges who saw the country as their personal fiefdom are furious. How dare the right-wing Netanyahu and his Mizrachi supporters challenge their ownership of the country? Netanyahu personifies everything that they hate. Someone like Miri Regev, once called “a rude, vulgar, primitive person” and a “Trumpess” by elder leftist Uri Avnery, would never have an important job in one of their governments.
Unable to win elections, the elites of the Left decided to get Netanyahu out by other means. An interminable police investigation was begun three years before he was finally indicted. Almost every day, the anti-Bibi media, especially the most popular TV stations, broadcast leaks from the police and prosecutors, and the latest theories about his supposed crimes. Several Netanyahu associates were persuaded, sometimes by threats, to become states’ witnesses against him.
Now, Bibi is not entirely clean. He – and especially his wife – accepted expensive gifts from foreign billionaire “friends.” There were several complicated political deals that some see as politics as usual and others see as bribery. He was indicted in November 2019 and his trial, which will probably go on for years, began in May.
The most recent election, in March, resulted in a stalemate, almost certainly as a result of the legal campaign against Netanyahu. The combination of his concern to avoid removal from power and even imprisonment, and the personal ambitions of, and the grudges held by, various politicians, gave rise to a bloated, unwieldy, and astronomically expensive coalition government, with 36 ministers and eight deputy ministers. Although it was touted as an “emergency” government to deal with the epidemic, it has proven to be grossly incompetent.
Whether Bibi is actually guilty of anything or not, there is a great deal of injustice here, starting with the fishing expeditions by police and prosecutors, including the leaking to the media – during election periods – and up to improper conduct of the authorities in handling the witnesses. The demonstrations, which began early in the summer, grew in size and frequency, only limited when a strict lockdown was in effect. The demonstrators claim that they are the purest expression of democracy, but in a country of nine million, there is something wrong with the idea that a few thousand, even twenty thousand, demonstrators should have the ability to change the government. And why should the PM be subjected to almost continuous harassment at his official residence and his private home? Does democracy imply a right to conduct a war of attrition against the man’s peace and privacy?
Not everyone participating in the demonstrations represents the hard-core anti-Netanyahu Left. Many are frustrated with the failure of the government to find a way to deal with the epidemic while at the same time not wrecking the economy. The government has tended to act according to political rather than scientific considerations in placing restrictions on the population; many government officials themselves have been caught breaking the rules; and efforts to compensate those whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the epidemic have been inadequate. The people have lost confidence in the authorities. All this has been blamed on Bibi.
In any case, the combination of the pressures of the trial and the demonstrations seem to have sapped his ability to deal with issues beyond his personal survival. Both the government and the PM himself have been “neutralized.”
Another election would cost half a billion shekels that could be used to compensate victims of the epidemic and shore up the healthcare system. The period of the campaign plus the coalition negotiations after the election are periods of paralysis, and the virus is not prepared to wait. On the other hand, what we have now is also a form of paralysis. The country needs a lean and efficient government that can act and that can reestablish the people’s trust.
There is only one democratic way to obtain that, and that is by another election, one in which Binyamin Netanyahu does not run. And I think that in that case, his indictments should be canceled. He has been treated unfairly, and it can’t be undone; but he can be allowed to retire honorably.
It is also imperative that this not happen again. A law should be passed that a PM cannot be indicted until he leaves office, as well as a law mandating term limits for the PM. There is already a law limiting the number of ministers in a government, but it can be overridden easily. It should be made more difficult. The State Prosecutor’s office should be separated from that of the Legal Advisor to the Government; and the latter position should actually be that of an advisor who works for the government, not an agent of the legal establishment with a veto power over government actions.
There are various other ways in which our system can be improved, but they can wait for a more propitious time. Right now we need to bite the bullet, put a real government in place and move forward with our lives.