I don’t use the word “coup” lightly. But any weaker description of Netanyahu’s assault on Israeli democracy is a refusal to absorb and report the truth.
Netanyahu has been chipping away at the country’s democracy for years: He used the Knesset majority he once had to pass legislation that reduced members of the Arab minority to second-class citizens. He barred entry to foreign critics and harassed domestic dissenters. He allegedly used his powers to buy himself flattering media coverage and undermine the fourth estate. He attacked the prosecutors who made these allegations. In the last year, he has taken the country to the polls three times, hoping to win a majority that would grant him immunity.
Now, though, Netanyahu and his Likud Party have moved from eroding democracy to dispensing with it. Three factors came together to erase their inhibitions: First, Netanyahu’s arraignment was supposed to take place this week. Second, his election-night euphoria vanished when exit polls gave way to actual results, and it turned out that the parties opposed to him had won a narrow majority. Third, the coronavirus arrived at just the right moment to provide pretexts for seizing authoritarian powers.
In the brief space between the elections and his waking up to the pandemic, Netanyahu tried to hold on to power by keeping his opposition fragmented. He insisted that the Joint List, which represents the Arab minority and which won 15 of the 120 seats in parliament, was “not part of the equation” for forming a coalition. Thus, Likud and the clerical parties allied with it still had a majority.
The move backfired: Benny Gantz, the ex-general /who leads the largest opposition party — the Blue and White — stopped keeping the Joint List at arm’s length and began defending its legitimacy. A breakthrough in Jewish-Arab cooperation seemed possible. A majority of Knesset members endorsed Gantz, insuring that Israeli President Reuven Rivlin give him the nod to form a coalition. Even before forming a government, the opposition planned to pass a bill barring anyone under indictment from becoming prime minister and another setting a term limit on the position. Twice over, that would have spelled the end for Netanyahu.
The exponentially rising number of confirmed coronavirus infections gave Netanyahu new opportunities. The crisis is real, and governments indeed need to take drastic actions. (Israel’s medical response, though, would have been more effective without years of starvation budgets for the health system under Netanyahu.) But those measures must take place within the democratic system.
Instead, on Saturday night, Israel’s citizens got two startling pieces of news. Justice Minister Amir Ohana, a Netanyahu lackey, issued orders for a near shutdown of the judicial system. Restricting business as usual would have made sense. Ohana’s orders, though, froze most criminal proceedings — and inevitably led to a postponement of Netanyahu’s arraignment.
The same night, Netanyahu himself announced that the government would use electronic means to track the locations of citizens in an effort to enforce self-isolation. That quickly turned out to mean giving the Shin Bet security service the power to locate people via their cellphones. That measure, an extreme infringement on civil rights, should be vetted by a Knesset committee. Instead, Netanyahu enacted it under emergency regulations.
But the newly sworn-in Knesset does not yet have committees. The reason: Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a member of the Likud, has used his power to set the agenda to prevent formation of committees or hold a vote on electing a new speaker. Once again, the pandemic provides justifications. The purpose, though, is transparent: buying time and trying to block legislation that would prevent Netanyahu from staying in office.
When the government has told citizens not to gather in group of more than 10 because of the epidemic, protest looked impossible. Nonetheless, a protest caravan of people in cars headed up the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway, each car providing a moving self-isolation cell. Police tried to stop the caravan, then arrested several protesters outside the Knesset.
The outcome is entirely uncertain. The latest reports are that Gantz has agreed to a unity government, with Netanyahu still temporarily in command. This would be a shameful surrender on Gantz’s part. The illusion of democracy would remain. In reality, Blue and White would be ratifying Netanyahu’s moves in the midst of the pandemic panic.
When the casualty toll for coronavirus in Israel is compiled, it is likely to record our democracy as one of the first victims.