In less than a week, Netanyahu has twice attempted to subvert the rule of law to his advantage and pivoted, at the speed of light, to deflect responsibility for the nation’s worst civilian disaster — the fatal stampede at a Galilean religious pilgrimage in which 100,000 worshipers gathered, with no permit but with the permission of Netanyahu’s government, in a spot the size of a small park.
Israel has been without a functional government for more than two years. During this time, the country was dragged through four general election campaigns in which Netanyahu failed to win enough votes to form a stable governing coalition — but succeeded in preventing anyone else from doing so each time.
Stuck in political purgatory, Israel has no budget, and it’s at risk of losing its international credit ratings. The Knesset is not operational, with the prime minister’s allies scrambling to reshape every rule and motion into a parachute that will save his political life. And the cabinet is incapacitated.
The crux of the problem for Netanyahu is that he is on trial, accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. On April 5, the first day of witness testimony, Netanyahu slammed Israel’s judiciary, calling the proceedings “an abuse of the destructive power held by the prosecution.”
“This is what the illegitimate use of power looks like,” the prime minister thundered. “This is how you try to topple a strong right-wing prime minister! This is what an attempted coup looks like!”
But it is Netanyahu who seeks to perpetrate a coup — even as he has effectively given up on governing.
By coincidence, his trial started on the same day President Reuven Rivlin invited Netanyahu, whose Likud party won 30 of 120 Knesset seats in the most recent election, to establish a government. The math meant Rivlin had no choice, but he didn’t hide his disgust.
Netanyahu has until Tuesday to come up with a coalition. If he fails, Rivlin may call on the opposition leader to try, but Netanyahu is attempting to stymie that possibility and lead Israel to a fifth round of elections, entrenching Israel’s leadership crisis — and, crucially, preserving his position as caretaker prime minister for a few months more.
With that goal still out of reach, he is instead floating an outlandish proposal — to partially cancel the results of the March 23 election, detaching the party vote for Knesset from the vote for prime minister. This would allow him, personally, to run again for reelection with no parliamentary majority, in an alternative Israel in which he can change election laws on a whim. Mid-game, he’s asking for a mulligan.
Meanwhile, spooked by his trial and by the looming deadline, Netanyahu last week forced an illegal vote through his cabinet, “appointing” a political lackey justice minister. The point of this maneuver was to enable Ofir Akunis, currently the minister for regional cooperation, to control the appointment of a new state prosecutor, one of many essential jobs left empty by Israel’s political limbo. Netanyahu’s interest in imposing his will on the state prosecution needs no explanation. The full slate of Likud ministers, who like their leader no longer pretend to govern, ignored the attorney general’s exclamations about the illegality of the stunt and voted like automatons to confirm Akunis.
Among the state affairs that fell through the cracks was an urgently needed overhaul of services provided to wounded military veterans. The issue gained prominence after Itzik Saidian, a 26-year-old disabled veteran who fought in the 2014 war in Gaza, set himself on fire outside Israeli army headquarters April 13, the day before Israel’s Memorial Day.
No resolution is on the horizon. The cabinet was due to discuss the proposal last week, when the cabinet meeting was hijacked by Netanyahu’s unlawful attempt to install a vassal justice minister. It was rescheduled for a vote at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, but instead of leading his cabinet in mourning, Netanyahu canceled the meeting, saying he did it out of respect for those killed in the stampede.
Of course, the entire unseemly shambles would have been avoided if Israel had a national budget that included provisions for veterans affairs.
The Supreme Court was forced to gather in emergency session to respond to Netanyahu’s maneuvers. And his dirty tricks played out against the backdrop of growing civil disorder. In Jerusalem, for no declared reason, the police erected barriers at Damascus Gate, where Muslims traditionally gather during Ramadan, provoking several nighttime riots by Palestinian youths. Meanwhile, supporters of the extreme right, led by members of Lehava, a Ku Klux Klan-like posse of racial supremacists, ran through the streets yelling “Death to the Arabs!”
Whenever Netanyahu’s reign finally ends, he will leave behind scorched earth in his right-wing camp, which is now populated by fanatics and milquetoasts.
His bid to form a government depends on the support of Itamar Ben Gvir, a founder of Lehava and an unabashed fan of Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli American fanatic who murdered 29 Palestinian Muslims during the morning Ramadan prayers in Hebron, in the West Bank, in February 1994. Ben Gvir belongs to the Religious Zionism bloc led by Bezalel Smotrich, a racial supremacist who believes Jewish women should not have to give birth in the same wards as Arabs and openly espouses converting Israel into a theocracy.
The ultra-Orthodox political parties have a single interest — to control their realms as if they were autonomous regions beyond the reach of Israeli law. Netanyahu knows he can depend on their support in exchange for relinquishing sovereignty over their communities and Jewish religious sites. At one stage of the coronavirus pandemic, when ultra-Orthodox communities flouted the nationwide lockdown, leading to disproportionately high fatalities, Netanyahu was reduced to groveling before the grandson of an influential rabbi in the hope of imposing basic sanitary regulations.
As the dimensions of the constitutional crisis triggered by the illegal selection of a justice minister began to dawn on Netanyahu, he caved.
Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan Jerusalem think tank, said that “his retreat in the face of a Supreme Court ruling indicates that Netanyahu still has red lines that he is hesitant to cross, but if the political reality seems to be leading him out of office, we can be sure that these lines will quickly fade and the prime minister will undoubtedly test the limits of Israel’s precarious constitutional structure.”
The backbone of Israel's tech economy remains solid, and the country is rightly proud of its hugely successful vaccination campaign, but it is impossible to overstate the precariousness of Israel’s predicament.
“What we’ve seen in the last two weeks is a spectacularly dangerous meltdown of the only prime minister in the history of democracies who has declared and waged war on his own country, it’s constitution, processes, institutions, judiciary, checks and balances,” said Alon Pinkas, Israel’s former consul general in New York who served in the Labor government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
The chaos of governability engulfing Israel has international ramifications, upending a fundamental assumption of American policy, which is that for all its internal quarrelsomeness, the state of Israel is a functioning First World country and reliable partner.
As the Biden administration seeks to revive the nuclear deal with Iran and rebuild relations with the Palestinians, Netanyahu dispatched a team to Washington with the wildly irresponsible order to “decline to discuss” the tentative talks with Iran underway in Vienna.
Simply put, Netanyahu ordered officials to stonewall Israel’s most important ally. “In all my years in and out of government participating/observing foreign policymaking and execution,” Pinkas tweeted, “I have never seen such a reckless absurdity.”
The effects of Netanyahu’s contempt are felt across the Middle East, and even in the United States. Any government including Ben Gvir would, at the very least, impair Israel’s ability to operate on the diplomatic stage.
Now Israel is a captive to Netanyahu. Even before the people crushed to death at the ancient gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai were laid to rest, Netanyahu began efforts to thwart the formation of an independent commission to investigate the catastrophe.
Netanyahu may have abandoned Israel and Israelis, but his efforts to save himself are undying. On Monday, even in the dwindling, final hours of Netanyahu’s mandate, loyal wingman Miki Zohar, the Likud Knesset faction chair, announced a new bill for the legislative agenda. It would allow for the direct election of a prime minister.