After years of investigations and speculation, Israel’s attorney general announced on November 21 that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be indicted on three counts of corruption. All three counts include fraud and breach of trust; in one of them, he also faces the more severe charge of bribery.
Netanyahu responded by lashing out against his accusers—in this case, the Israeli judiciary. The man who has made personalization of politics his signature style accused the entire legal system of executing a targeted political hit job against him. The deeper argument he seems to be making is that a system that has run amok in its obsession to topple one man can be controlled by only one man: him. The big question for Israel, therefore, is which force wins: one ruthless person desperate to stay in power, or the institutions designed to protect people from precisely such an individual abuse of power?
The attorney general’s announcement further complicated a political environment that is at once chaotic and sclerotic. Israel held two elections in 2019, and still doesn’t have a government. Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party won a tiny plurality in April, but he failed to form a coalition government. A challenger party, Blue and White, won the next poll in September—also with just a slim lead. After September, both Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz were given a chance to form a government; both failed. At present the Knesset has until December 11 for a majority to nominate one member to form the next government—the only hope of staving off a third election. But so far it looks unlikely that 61 out of 120 members will agree on that person. Even if they do, there is no guarantee of avoiding an election. The nominee has only two weeks to produce a government; if he or she fails, there will still be a third round.
Accelerating the Erosion of Democracy
Ironically, the political and legal crisis can be read either as a sign of democratic breakdown, or the opposite: as a mark of institutional fortitude. There is a case to be made that the hallmark of a democracy is not political stability—which is equally or even more likely under authoritarian regimes—but the ability to correct and contain its social conflicts through political institutions. In this reading, Israel has closely followed the instructions laid down by its own “Basic Law: The Government” regarding the procedure for a political stalemate. There has been no physical political violence, and the state has continued to function, albeit hobbled. On the corruption cases, the attorney general has navigated painstakingly between political pressures of the left and right alike, and his professional legal obligations. The prime minister has fumed and accused the justice system of a witch hunt, but his histrionics have not stopped the legal process so far. If convicted, Netanyahu will surely serve his sentence, just like other Israeli public officials convicted of corruption, bribery, rape.
However, the most recent events must also be viewed in the context of a longer-term change in the normative understanding of democracy. Over the past ten years, the erosion of democratic values in Israel—which have been compromised and partial from the earliest decades—have accelerated, and taken on new forms. During the decade when Netanyahu has been in power, his governments have been responsible for undermining civil society, the media (Netanyahu’s cases include a more insidious version of political intervention and manipulation of the media), delegitimizing political opposition, and dangerous levels of ethnic targeting.
There have been different phases to this long decline, each characterized by attacks on a specific aspect of society. The Knesset term from 2009 to 2013 (when Netanyahu returned to power after his first term in the 1990s) produced a series of laws and bills targeted at Arab citizens and left-wing civil society organizations. In the latter part of the decade, the right wing ratcheted up its attacks on Israel’s judiciary. The government sought to pass an “override clause” to end judicial review, and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked tried to roll back judicial activism and supported political appointments of ministerial legal advisors, rather than professionals. By the time of the first 2019 campaign, the Supreme Court was regularly labeled as a “dictatorship,” and right-wing parties campaigned on the need to rein in the judiciary—increasingly portrayed as a deep-state engaged in a silent but relentless coup against the true (right-wing) spirit of the people.
In his speech an hour after the corruption charges were announced, Prime Minister Netanyahu provided his most elaborate vision of a legal deep-state dictatorship so far. Netanyahu painted a portrait of conspiracy that resembled Madame Defarge, with the state prosecutor and the former chief of police each holding one knitting needle. Netanyahu didn’t have to name the figures to make it clear he was referring to chief prosecutor Shai Nitzan and the former police chief Roni Alsheich, who oversaw the bulk of the investigations. (Both were appointed by or under Netanyahu, but logical inconsistencies don’t seem to matter.)
The Limits of Netanyahu’s Narrative
Netanyahu’s supporters seem to agree with every word of his speech, and subscribe to a worldview in which selective enforcement reflects a dual system of law: one for everyone else, and one Netanyahu said was “tailored” (rather than knitted) to take him down.
Portraying Israel’s judiciary and law enforcement as a system designed to revolve entirely around him, Netanyahu has degraded the idea of democracy in Israel in yet another way. The previous erosions—in legislation, and in policy—were all accompanied by a discussion of the evolving (or devolving) ideas about the very nature of democracy, as the ideal type Israel should aspire to reach. To support the attacks on the left and the Arab minority, for example, the narrative took hold that there might be “too much democracy”—a euphemism for limiting freedom of speech for unpopular opinions. And to provide ideological underpinning for the Nation State Law, limiting self-determination to the Jewish people only, suddenly the idea of democracy as a bare-bones majority rule became ubiquitous. This strict majoritarian theme has also served as a justification for restraining the judiciary—which Netanyahu paints as a cabal of self-serving, self-appointed elites who plot all day how to overthrow not only him, but also the Knesset, and thus is against the will of the “majority,” or the people.
Portraying Israel’s judiciary and law enforcement as a system designed to revolve entirely around him, Netanyahu has degraded the idea of democracy in Israel in yet another way.
The impact of Netanyahu’s narrative—that all systems in the country exist to support or undermine him alone—can be seen in the streets. Two nights after the indictment was announced, a small cluster of demonstrators in Tel Aviv agitated for Netanyahu to resign. A few days later, a demonstration was held to support him. The electoral arena also revolves around Netanyahu: if a third election is held, it will be purely because of his frenzied insistence on remaining prime minister, though he failed twice at the task of forming a government, and lost the elections in September.
Netanyahu has already turned the elections and government formation into a cult of personality. Now, by making the fight over the judiciary about him alone, he is claiming to citizens that Israel’s institutions tailor their functions to target individuals, rather than abiding by principles. Internet ads rallying pro-Netanyahu demonstrators insist “They invent cases!” in huge block letters, and the general pro-Netanyahu slogan is “Stop them from toppling the government!” As Netanyahu and his supporters paint it, the “legal system” is thus anarchic, lawless, and it’s coming for the people. In this worldview, citizens should conclude that only a lone, powerful leader can tame the beast and protect society. Ideally, Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s narrative has been seductive to many thus far, but his extreme version may be hitting its limits—even within his own party. The pro-Netanyahu demonstration on Tuesday, November 26, drew thousands of people, but top party figures declined to turn up. From the crowd’s demographics, it was clear that many were not from the Likud’s base. The following Saturday evening, thousands more took to the street in Tel Aviv—this time, for a demonstration opposing Netanyahu’s continued leadership.
Israeli democracy is being redefined daily. If the next government doesn’t dismantle Netanyahu’s cult-like omnipresence, Israel’s political culture might never recover.
Cover Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before a right wing parties meeting in Jerusalem, Israel. Source: Amir Levy/Getty Images