It is a sign of our acclimation to the total implosion of Israeli politics that newsrooms across the country breathed a sigh of relief last week with the realization that Israel isn’t headed for another round of elections — at least not this year. Following a last-minute deal struck by MK Tzvi Hauser of the center-right Derekh Eretz faction, it looks as if Israeli citizens will only head to the polls in March 2021. Instead of elections every 19 months, we’ll be voting every 23 months.
This is a crisis. And while it is dangerous, it carries with it the potential to shake up the political landscape. This is, after all, a crisis that has brought to the surface the deepest issues plaguing Israeli society.
Political instability is by no means an Israeli invention, but it seems that Israel is reaching a critical moment, at least when compared to parliamentary democracies across the world. Belgium hasn’t been able to form a government for the past year and a half, yet it continues to be ruled by a minority government. Italy has seen almost 70 governments since World War II, yet the majority of government crises there did not lead to elections. Italians have only gone to the polls 19 times in the past 74 years. The shortest time span between four election cycles in Italy was nine years — more than four times the rate in Israel currently. Compared to Israel, Italy is an island of stability when it comes to elections.
The same kind of instability plaguing Israel was a defining characteristic of Germany’s Weimar Republic, but even then, the shortest period between four election cycles was between May 1928 and November 1932 — more than four years. That certainly does not mean that we are on the path to Nazism, but it is difficult to deny the fact that the political system in Israel has lost both its footing and its ability to formulate a basic set of principles that the majority of the political actors — at least if they are Israeli citizens — can agree upon.
The ‘plot’ against Netanyahu
This is not an abstract issue from the realm of political science. The inability to reach some kind of agreement on these principles can be seen every single day in the government’s simplest, most quotidian decisions regarding management of the coronavirus crisis: from vacillating between opening and closing down restaurants, to color coding municipalities, to arbitrary decisions like preventing Hasidic Jews from making a pilgrimage to the holy city of Uman in Ukraine. Even the yearly budget has been taken hostage as part of the political crisis. The last time the Knesset approved the budget was in March 2018; only a political miracle will allow a budget to be approved before March 2021.
The central, though not the sole, player behind this process is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. From the beginning of his second term in 2009, and especially since the formation of his right-wing government in 2015 — and the beginning of the criminal proceedings against him followed by three successive election campaigns in 2019 and 2020 — Netanyahu has systematically attacked all major bodies of the Israeli “kingdom.” The police, the State Attorney’s Office, the courts, the legal advisers, the officials in the Finance Ministry, and even the army, not to mention the media and his political rivals. There is no body that has escaped the wrath of Netanyahu, his henchmen, and in the past year his son, Yair.
Netanyahu has undermined the concept of the “civil servant,” deeming it as nothing more than a cover for the so-called “deep state” and the shady groups whose whole purpose is to deprive the “people” — with Netanyahu as their natural representative — of their natural right to rule. Take, for example — as Eli Bitan wrote in Local Call — the restrictions proposed by Netanyahu-appointed coronavirus project coordinator Ronni Gamzu, which are consistently seen as a kind of deliberate attempt to undermine the prime minister.
No semblance of unity
The opposition to Netanyahu’s attacks on the “kingdom” was, in fact, the glue that held together the various ramshackle factions of the Blue and White alliance and was precisely what won it more than 30 Knesset seats in each of the last three elections. This was an achievement that even the historic Labor Party hasn’t gotten close to in the last 25 years.
The opposition to Netanyahu’s attacks and ceaseless delegitimization of his opponents created the very conditions for an improbable coalition led by now Defense Minister Benny Gantz back in March, which would have run the gamut from the Palestinian Balad faction to hardline nationalists like Avigdor Liberman. That near coalition would have had the opportunity to replace Netanyahu had it not been for three members of Knesset who decided that their hatred of Arabs superseded their derision for a corrupt prime minister.
The opposition to Netanyahu’s attacks explains the behavior of Defense Minister Gantz, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, and Justice Minister Avi Nisenkorn, who refuse to accept Netanyahu’s total authority in the current “unity government.” If in the past, Netanyahu could summon the likes of Tzipi Livni or Ehud Barak to create some kind of fictitious national consensus, today the prime minister does not even pretend to feign interest in such a consensus. It’s either him or them. There is no middle.
As many have pointed out, decrying attacks on the “deep state” is not unique to Netanyahu. Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Victor Orbàn in Hungary, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and of course Donald Trump in the United States are part of the same populist current — one that goes against the values of liberal democracy and strives for “total democracy,” in which the “person elected can do what he wants,” says Dr. Honaida Ghanim, a Palestinian sociologist and director of the Madar Center for the Study of Israeli Society in Ramallah.
And yet there is a difference between Netanyahu and other populist leaders. While a leader like Trump, for example, presents himself and his political camp as an example of American perfection while attacking his rivals as corrupt and driven by evil, Netanyahu takes a different approach. Rather than presenting himself as pristine, Netanyahu prefers to claim that he is no more or less dirty than any other Israeli politician.
This is particularly noticeable when it comes to his personal conduct. He does not deny, for instance, that he received cigars and champagne in the form of bribes, but rather claims that the likes of President Shimon Peres or Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did the exact same thing. He does not deny that he goaded Shaul Elovitz, owner of the Bezeq telecom group and the Walla! news site, into giving him flattering coverage, but rather claims that this has been accepted practice at the popular Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper for decades. He does not deny that he has a conflict of interest when determining who will be the state attorney conducting his trial, but rather claims that the Supreme Court’s judges themselves have transformed the very notion of conflict of interest into common practice. As his ship sinks, Netanyahu is taking everyone down with him.
Dirty like him
This tactic isn’t simply reserved for Netanyahu’s personal behavior. One could see it around the passing of the Jewish Nation-State Law in 2018. Netanyahu did not deny that the law privileges Jews and discriminates against Palestinians, he simply claimed that this form of discrimination has always been at the heart of the Zionist project, inscribed in its very Declaration of Independence.
His support for Trump’s “Deal of the Century,” for annexing of parts of the West Bank, and for the “peace agreement” with the United Arab Emirates can also be read as part of the same playbook. Just as the left viewed its support for a final-status agreement with the Palestinians as a matter of practical benefit rather than of moral compulsion, so too is Netanyahu building Israel’s status in the Middle East on the basis of its strength. From the moment the two-state solution was adopted, bastardized, and imposed on Palestinians by the Zionist left, Netanyahu had no difficulty in adopting it and giving it his own interpretation.
This tactic makes it very difficult to try and create a set of common values that is acceptable to society, since any of those “values” is immediately perceived as an excuse to prevent the rule of the right. This is one of the reasons why Israel, more than other countries in the world experiencing a rise of populism, finds itself in almost complete political paralysis.
Bibi versus Zionism
But there is something even deeper at play here. Consciously or unconsciously, Netanyahu’s criticism of the “kingdom” echoes the criticism by Palestinian citizens and the radical left regarding practices Israel has used since its inception. When Netanyahu claims that the courts and the media are biased, that democracy here is an illusion, that land ownership is unjust, that Mizrahim face discrimination — Palestinians and the radical Jewish left cannot help but nod their heads in agreement. This is exactly what they have been saying for at least 72 years; now the prime minister is adopting these very claims.
Israel, since its inception, has been built on an intricate array of racial hierarchies and privileges. This system was originally intended to ensure Jewish supremacy and Palestinian subordination, but it has also had a profound effect on the entire social, legal, economic, and political structure of the country, including among Jewish citizens, particularly between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim. The occupation and apartheid that accompanied it has only served to deepen this racial hierarchy. Meanwhile, the Jewish Israeli political center established a judicial system, civil service, and media that managed to create a semblance of a functioning kingdom, while building a consensus, albeit fragile, around this façade.
Netanyahu, with his lack of restraint, is dismantling these institutions one by one, thereby shattering that consensus. In doing so, he is releasing all the sludge that has been accumulating for at least seven decades. Deliberately or unintentionally, he is mucking out the stables.
This may be a very dangerous moment. Removing the democratic façade from the Israeli “kingdom” could have profound negative repercussions for the country’s citizens — and even more so for the non-citizens under its control. The rise of Naftali Bennett-style fascism is certainly a possibility should Netanyahu be forced to retire. Yet at the same time, we are being presented with an opportunity. The Balfour protests are largely a result of the current crisis; once the political system is completely stuck, it is only reasonable for people to take to the streets.
If the young people demonstrating in Jerusalem understand that for Israel to be truly democratic, it is not enough to remove Netanyahu, but rather that the entire regime between the river and the sea must be rebuilt on foundations of justice and equality, then perhaps, somehow, Netanyahu’s assault on the kingdom will be remembered in a positive light.
This article was originally published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.