It has strong independent law-enforcement agencies and a judiciary, which have held the most powerful in the land to account. In the past decade, a former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has sat in prison for accepting bribes and a former president, Moshe Katsav, served time for rape. Freedom of expression is a proud tradition and the Israeli media is free, combative and irreverent. Election turnouts are high and the electoral system is robust, transparent, routinely delivers change of government, and its results are accepted as fair and are not disputed.
In recent years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his political allies have tried to erode all these democratic elements. They routinely attack the legal establishment, accusing it of being a left-wing mafia. They propose legislation to limit the powers of the country’s Supreme Court and have appointed police chiefs and attorneys general in the hope they would shield politicians from investigation.
Netanyahu supports closing down Israel’s public broadcasting corporation and has interfered in the licensing regulations of commercial television stations. He encouraged wealthy backers to invest in news organizations and to set up new ones that would support him.
In the two elections of 2019, Netanyahu embarked on a campaign to taint the results by accusing the Arab-Israeli community of widespread fraud.
The indictments handed down against Netanyahu on Thursday — three counts of fraud and breach of trust, and one count of bribery — represent the culmination of his assault on Israeli democracy. Two of the three cases against Netanyahu contain detailed allegations of how he tried to get media barons to subvert the work of their journalists in return for his intervening on their behalf in legislation and media regulation.
Netanyahu has failed, so far. In the last election in September, instead of being intimidated by his party’s attempt to place cameras in voting centers, the turnout of Arab-Israeli voters rose dramatically. Israeli journalists withstood the pressure and continued reporting critically on the prime minister, uncovering details that would later be investigated by police. Netanyahu’s hand-picked police commissioner and attorney general surprised him by giving their full backing to the fraud investigators and prosecutors who took up the case.
Israeli democracy has withstood Netanyahu’s attack. For now.
There was a sense of finality to much of the coverage out of Israel concerning Netanyahu’s indictments, as though the charges were heralding his imminent departure from the public stage. But that is hardly a foregone conclusion. Netanyahu is still prime minister, leading an interim government. He may have failed, twice, to form a new government, following the elections in April and September. But neither has the opposition succeeded in mustering a majority.
Netanyahu will almost certainly lead his Likud party into a third campaign. His prospects are not great right now, but it would be premature to rule out a victory for his coalition. Whether he wins or loses, he will try to gain parliamentary immunity from the Knesset. He unveiled his upcoming campaign strategy in an angry televised statement following the attorney general’s announcement of the indictments.
The indictments are “tainted,” the prime minister said. The Israeli state prosecutor’s office had tried to carry out “a coup” against him to “topple a right-wing leader.” He promised to “investigate the investigators.”
Netanyahu is setting up a showdown between those who believe the legal establishment is a left-wing “deep state” and Israelis who trust their country’s democratic tradition. The indictments against Netanyahu, his struggle to hold on to power and, finally, the trial will all be part of the battle for the soul of Israel’s fragile democracy. And it’s far from over.