Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s defiant response to the three indictments finally brought against him, on Thursday, would, under any circumstances, constitute a crisis for the rule of law in Israel. But Netanyahu’s defiance comes as the climax of a larger crisis for Israel’s democracy, which has been building at least since Netanyahu’s reëlection, in 2015. It places the country’s divided people on unknown and dangerous terrain. The indictments—for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust—are, Netanyahu insists, an attempted “coup” against him, conducted by the police, the state prosecutor’s office, and other judicial authorities—his version of the Trumpian claim that a “deep state” is attempting to overturn the will of the electorate. He seems intent on conducting a preëmptive countercoup using the office of Prime Minister, which he currently occupies only as the head of a transitional government, to appoint potential allies to key government positions, conduct escalatory military operations, collude with an increasingly desperate Donald Trump, and rally his followers against Israeli Arabs, whose parties he tars with the vague charge of “supporting terrorism.” Two close elections this year have not returned Netanyahu to the office, but they have not dislodged him either.
By law, an Israeli minister indicted for a criminal offense is required to resign. By precedent, a Prime Minister must: two already have, and not for crimes committed while in office. Yet Netanyahu seems determined not to relinquish power. “My sense of justice burns within me,” he said on Thursday evening, in a speech that was unprecedented in its pathos and its attacks on state prosecutors, including the Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit, who had announced the indictments. “I cannot believe that the country I fought for and was wounded for, that I’ve brought to such achievements,” he said, will allow “this kind of tainted justice.” For the rule of law to prevail, he added, “we have to do one thing: to finally investigate the investigators,” which would entail the appointment of an “outside” commission of inquiry into the prosecution’s methods, as if the Attorney General, whom Netanyahu himself appointed, were somehow part of a secret conspiracy against him.
Yohanan Plesner, the director of the Israel Democracy Institute, has called for Netanyahu to resign, saying, “The head of government serving in office under the shadow of indictment harms the public’s trust in the country’s institutions and Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state.” The danger, though, is that the defenses of a “Jewish” state, for which Netanyahu claims to be indispensable, and those of a “democratic” state, which presume laws promoting individual sovereignty and equality, are not comfortably conjoined in a country where theocratic power and occupation have been increasingly normalized, at least since 1967. And it is especially difficult to see how surviving leaders of Netanyahu’s Likud Party will see democratic norms as paramount when their political positions depend on not seeing them. Netanyahu’s Justice Minister, Amir Ohana, said that he is “completely confident that the test of history” will vindicate Netanyahu’s remaining in office. The Tourism Minister, Yariv Levin—an attorney and a former deputy head of the Israel Bar Association—defended Netanyahu’s claim that the investigations were “tainted.”
Just twenty-four hours before Mandelblit announced the indictments, Benny Gantz, whose Blue and White Party won a plurality in Israel’s September election, informed President Reuven Rivlin that he had failed to form a governing coalition, which would have made him the next Prime Minister. Gantz blamed his failure primarily on Netanyahu’s determination to escape prosecution. Urged on by Avigdor Lieberman—the leader of the secular, right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel, Our Home”) party, who holds the balance of power in the Knesset—Gantz had tried to form a “liberal, national-unity coalition” with Likud. This, Lieberman said, would be a center-right government without either religious “messianic” parties or Arab ones (a slight to Arab leaders, who mainly argue for democratic norms, not Arab-nationalist excesses). Gantz seemed ready to accede to Rivlin’s formula that Netanyahu should be Prime Minister first in such a unity government—with the proviso, to be legally guaranteed, that Gantz would become the acting Prime Minister should Netanyahu be indicted and forced to take a “leave of absence” to defend himself in court.
Netanyahu rejected even this formula, insisting that the Haredi and national-Orthodox parties should join him in a coalition—presumably in exchange for securing Netanyahu’s immunity from prosecution—and that Netanyahu should go first as Prime Minister. Neither condition was acceptable to Blue and White. Frustrated, Gantz quietly floated the idea of founding a minority government resting on the support—actually, the agreed parliamentary abstentions—of the Joint List, composed of parties representing Israel’s Arab citizens. Netanyahu declared, “If a minority government like this is formed, they will celebrate in Tehran, Ramallah, and Gaza the way they celebrate after every terror attack. This would be a historic national terror attack on the State of Israel.”
Lieberman, a nationalist bigot, didn’t need Netanyahu’s demagogy to scotch any such government; key members of Gantz’s own party who were once associated with Netanyahu threatened to sink the idea of a government requiring Arab support. These are not simply tactical moves by sly politicians; they testify to an atmosphere in which an embattled Netanyahu seems certain that he would have the backing of the majority to subordinate liberal democratic institutions. He thus seems, in his own way, to join the ranks of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in Turkey, and Viktor Orbán, in Hungary. The attacks on Israeli Arabs are telltale.
Gantz’s response to Netanyahu’s “investigate the investigators” speech was immediate. The country is not “undergoing a government coup,” he said, but rather “an entrenchment.” Yet, as a former Army chief of staff who conducted the 2014 war in Gaza under Netanyahu, Gantz could not fully lay out how brazen Netanyahu’s acts of entrenchment have been. On November 8th, while Gantz was trying to reach a political agreement with the Joint List, Netanyahu appointed the ultra-rightist Naftali Bennett as Defense Minister, reportedly admitting to Likud ministers that inviting his younger rival into the transitional cabinet was a political maneuver, meant to keep his bloc of rightist and Orthodox allies from bolting. Then, on November 12th, Israeli air strikes in Gaza killed Baha Abu al-Ata, a commander of Islamic Jihad, which is backed by Iran.
The Ata assassination was predictably followed by escalating exchanges of fire between Islamic Jihad and Israeli forces, along with new exchanges between Israel and Iranian-backed Syrian forces, culminating in Israeli air strikes on dozens of Iranian and Syrian military targets in Syria, which killed as many as twenty Iranians. Michael Oren, the former Israeli Ambassador to Washington, wrote in The Atlantic that, should war break out in Israel’s north, the country could be hit by as many as four thousand missiles a day. No one should doubt the mounting Iranian threat in Syria. But no one should doubt, either, how convenient the timing of the assassination was for Netanyahu. His and Bennett’s decision to kill Ata came just as Gantz was trying to form a government, arguably, a coincidence: Ata was, Netanyahu said, “a ticking bomb.” Inarguably, however, the ticking must have seemed louder to Netanyahu just as Gantz entertained the idea of coöperating with Israeli-Arab political leaders, many of whom have routinely condemned Israeli military actions in Gaza.
Netanyahu’s remaining in office would mean continued concessions from the Trump Administration, which is apparently eager to show itself a faithful ally to pro-Israel forces in America, and is willing to accommodate Netanyahu with escalating shows of devotion to his rightist base. On November 18th, before Gantz gave up trying to form a government, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the State Department will no longer abide by its 1978 legal opinion that Jewish settlements in the West Bank are illegal. “The establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law,” he said. The United States has always accepted the argument that the settlements violate the Geneva Conventions and are, in any case, an obstacle to peace. Pompeo, increasingly embroiled in Trump’s impeachment hearings, seemed more concerned with handing Netanyahu a vote of confidence, in spite of the Prime Minister’s own legal woes.
There are ways out of this crisis, though it’s hard to see how any of them will be taken unless Israeli democrats can mobilize public opinion, which remains sharply divided. A recent poll revealed that slightly fewer than half of respondents think Netanyahu should resign because of the charges pending against him. That’s more than the proportion opposed to or ambivalent about a resignation. The country’s political divide is, in part, geographic. Anti-Netanyahu forces are concentrated in affluent Tel Aviv and along the Mediterranean coast, and pro-Netanyahu forces are focussed in poorer areas—Jerusalem, the settlements, and peripheral towns—and resent the coastal élites about as much as they revere Netanyahu.
The immediate question is how senior Likud leaders will respond. The former Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar has called for a leadership primary and announced that he would run. But others, still cowed by Netanyahu, or just afraid of alienating the increasingly populist rank and file when a primary eventually does come, have argued against any leadership contest now. There seems little doubt that Netanyahu could win a preëmption of a primary from the party’s thirty-seven-hundred-person Central Committee. Earlier this week, he and Haim Katz, the Central Committee’s chair, said that they will advance a joint proposal to cancel a primary in the event of a third general election.
Reports have circulated that Netanyahu would resign in exchange for a Presidential pardon. But this seems an underestimation of the crisis he has precipitated. No one knows what might happen if Netanyahu remains the head of Likud and wins a new election, and the President, reinforced by the courts, refuses to grant an indicted member of Knesset the mandate to form a government. Nor is it known what might happen if another election produces a deadlock or a Blue and White coalition with the Joint List, and Netanyahu supporters take to the streets. The good news, perhaps, is that Tel Aviv’s business leaders and Israel’s police and security establishment—now identified with Blue and White—will also have their say.
Given the superficial similarities—the nationalist demagogy, the legal investigations, the defiance, the incumbent party’s flocking behavior—the temptation to draw parallels between the democratic tests in Netanyahu’s Israel and Trump’s America may prove irresistible. But America’s democratic institutions are far more numerous, established, and dispersed than Israel’s; America’s constitution is more comprehensive than Israel’s Basic Laws, its secular standards more stipulated, its media more independent, and its enemies much farther away. What can’t happen here, as Sinclair Lewis ironically put it, can, of course, happen anywhere, but it’s more likely to happen where institutional resistance is demonstrably more fragile. As ideals, “Jewish” and “democratic” were always vaguely in tension. Netanyahu’s gambit to stay out of court risks turning these into rallying points for confrontation.
By barring Representatives Omar and Tlaib, Netanyahu made the president happy. But he has poisoned relations with America.
I am going to say this as simply and clearly as I can: If you’re an American Jew and you’re planning on voting for Donald Trump because you think he is pro-Israel, you’re a damn fool.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. Trump has said and done many things that are in the interests of the current Israeli government — and have been widely appreciated by the Israeli public. To deny that would be to deny the obvious. But here’s what’s also obvious. Trump’s way of — and motivation for — expressing his affection for Israel is guided by his political desire to improve his re-election chances by depicting the entire Republican Party as pro-Israel and the entire Democratic Party as anti-Israel.
As a result, Trump — with the knowing help of Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu — is doing something no American president and Israeli prime minister have done before: They’re making support for Israel a wedge issue in American politics.
Few things are more dangerous to Israel’s long-term interests than its becoming a partisan matter in America, which is Israel’s vital political, military and economic backer in the world.
Trump’s campaign to tar the entire Democratic Party with some of the hostile views toward Israel of a few of its newly elected congresswomen — and Netanyahu’s careless willingness to concede to Trump’s demand and bar two of them, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, from visiting Israel and the West Bank — is part of a process that will do huge, long-term damage to Israel’s interests and support in America.
Netanyahu later relented and granted a visa to Tlaib, who is of Palestinian descent, for a private, “humanitarian’’ visit to see her 90-year-old grandmother — provided she agree in writing not to advocate the boycott of Israel while there. At first Tlaib agreed, but then decided that she would not come under such conditions.
Excuse me, but when did powerful Israel — a noisy, boisterous democracy where Israeli Arabs in its Parliament say all kinds of wild and crazy things — get so frightened by what a couple of visiting freshman American congresswomen might see or say? When did Israel get so afraid of saying to them: “Come, visit, go anywhere you want! We’ve got our warts and we’ve got our good stuff. We’d just like you to visit both. But if you don’t, we’ll live with that too. We’re pretty tough.’’
It’s too late for that now. The damage of what Trump and Bibi have been up to — formally making Israel a wedge issue in American politics — is already done. Do not be fooled: Netanyahu, through his machinations with Senate Republicans, can get the United States Congress to give him an audience anytime he wants. But Bibi could not speak on any major American college campus today without massive police protection. The protests would be huge.
And listen now to some of the leading Democratic presidential candidates, like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — you can hear how unhappy they are with the behavior of this Israeli government and its continued occupation of the West Bank. And they are not afraid to say so anymore. As The Jerusalem Post reported on July 11, “Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose presidential candidacy has rallied in recent weeks, told two Jewish anti-occupation activists ‘yes’ when they asked her for support.’’
But who can blame them? Trump is equating the entire Democratic Party with hatred for Israel, while equating support for Netanyahu — who leads the most extreme, far-right government that Israel has ever had, who is facing indictment on three counts of corruption and whose top priority is getting re-elected so that he can have the Israeli Knesset overrule its justice system and keep him out of court — with loving Israel.
How many young Americans want to buy into that narrative? If Bibi wins, he plans to pass a law banning his own indictment on corruption, and then, when Israel’s Supreme Court strikes down that law as illegal, he plans to get the Knesset to pass another law making the Supreme Court subservient to his Parliament. I am not making this up. Israel will become a Jewish banana republic.
If and when that happens, every synagogue, every campus Hillel, every Jewish institution, every friend of Israel will have to ask: Can I support such an Israel? It will tear apart the entire pro-Israel community and every synagogue and Jewish Federation.
Then add another factor. By moving the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — and turning that embassy, led by a Trump crony, Ambassador David Friedman, into an outpost for advancing the interests of Israeli Jewish settlers, not American interests — Trump has essentially greenlighted the Israeli annexation of the West Bank.
Again, should Netanyahu remain prime minister — which is possible only if he puts together a ruling coalition made up of far-right parties that want to absorb the West Bank and its 2.5 million Palestinians into Israel — Israel will be on its way to becoming either a binational state of Arabs and Jews or a state that systematically deprives a large and growing segment of its population of the democratic right to vote. Neither will be a Jewish democracy, the dream of Israel’s founders and still the defining, but endangered, political characteristic of the state.
Don’t get me wrong. I strongly oppose the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement — which Representatives Omar and Tlaib have embraced — because it wants to erase the possibility of a two-state solution. And I am particularly unhappy with Representative Omar.I know a lot about her home district in Minnesota, because I grew up in it, in St. Louis Park. Omar represents the biggest concentration of Jews and Muslims living together in one district in the Upper Midwest. She was perfectly placed to be a bridge builder between Muslims and Jews. Instead, sadly, she has been a bridge destroyer between the two since she came to Washington. But anytime she is legitimately criticized, Democrats automatically scream “Islamophobia’’ and defend her. That’s as disturbing as Trump.
I know that more than a few Somali immigrants in Minneapolis, who face so many challenges — from gang violence to unemployment — are asking why is Omar spending time on the West Bank of the Jordan and not on the West Bank of the Mississippi?
I love Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs — but God save me from some of their American friends. So many of them just want to exploit this problem to advance themselves politically, get attention, raise money or delegitimize their opponents.
In that, Trump is not alone — he’s just the worst of the worst.
TEL AVIV – It is Bibi again. Having unapologetically allied with a racist, Jewish-supremacist party, Binyamin Netanyahu has secured a fourth consecutive term as Israel’s prime minister. The Union of Right Wing Parties says Netanyahu promised it both the education ministry and the justice ministry, and who are we to doubt it? Along with Netanyahu’s other right-wing allies, the URWP has already backed a new law that would protect the prime minister from being indicted on pending corruption charges.
Israel’s latest parliamentary election has consolidated the country’s position within a growing bloc of illiberal democracies around the world. Once again, Netanyahu has won by mobilizing the people against the very state institutions that he is supposed to uphold and defend. In this election cycle, he shamelessly lambasted the judicial system and the police for doing their jobs. He attacked the media for uncovering improper behavior by his family and cronies. He pilloried public intellectuals for refusing to acknowledge his greatness. And he depicted the old Zionist “left” as traitors.
As for the Arab parties, they lost around 25% of their seats, owing partly to voter abstention. With Netanyahu having pushed through a “nation-state law” declaring the pursuit of “national self-determination” in Israel as “unique to the Jewish people,” Israel’s Arab citizens apparently are through lending credibility to a sham democracy. Throughout the campaign, they were treated as political lepers by practically every segment of the Israeli body politic.
The Israeli left, in particular, has been exposed as a bankrupt political project. In fact, Netanyahu’s Israel has swung so far right that the term “leftist” itself is now a smear. Both his party’s main challenger, the centrist Blue and White alliance, and the Labor Party have run away from the label. And both not only lacked the courage to stand up to Netanyahu’s maligning of Israeli Arabs as enemies of the state, but also refused even to consider forming a parliamentary alliance with Arab parties. On the Arab question, liberal Zionists have acceded to Netanyahu’s project of making Israel into a one-race, one-party state.
All told, the election amounts to a monumental indictment of Israel’s democracy. In a campaign dominated by personal smears and disinformation, not one substantive issue was debated seriously. It was as if the consequences of Netanyahu’s cruel neoliberal policies – a weakened welfare state and squeezed middle classes – did not matter at all. Nor was there any discussion of the unproductive Orthodox community’s dependence on state subsidies, which have grown substantially under Netanyahu.
And then there is the elephant in the room: the Palestinian question. Fearing the loss of conservative votes, the left and center parties did not make a single convincing statement – let alone offer a policy program – to address the greatest existential and moral challenge facing the country. Yes, candidates on the left paid lip service to the problem, and Benny Gantz, the colorless leader of Blue and White, muttered something about the need for a “diplomatic move” with respect to the occupied territories, but that was it.
Meanwhile, Gantz and those on the left said almost nothing when Netanyahu boasted that he could get US President Donald Trump to greenlight a partial Israeli annexation of the West Bank. And they were equally nonresponsive when Netanyahu took credit for the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
In fact, US-Israeli relations were another key issue that went almost unmentioned in the election campaign. Never mind that Netanyahu’s alliance with Trump and American evangelicals has cost Israel the support of a growing portion of the US Democratic Party establishment, or that his blank check to the Israeli Orthodox community has alienated America’s predominantly liberal Jewish community. After Beto O’Rourke, a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, warned that Netanyahu is a “racist” who is damaging America’s special alliance with Israel, Israelis responded by extending that racist’s grip on power.
Throughout the campaign, Netanyahu touted his foreign-policy record. In addition to cozying up to illiberal Eastern European governments and Brazil’s new right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, he claims to have bolstered Israel’s economic clout in Asia, made diplomatic breakthroughs in Africa, and forged covert partnerships with neighboring Arab countries, not least Saudi Arabia.
And here, too, Netanyahu’s opponents dropped the ball. They could have pointed out that his goal in brokering new partnerships is to head off international opposition to his planned annexation of Palestinian territory. Instead of using Israel’s diplomatic relationships to work toward an acceptable solution to its primary existential challenge, he has exploited them for his own chauvinist agenda.
Sadly, the election leaves no doubt about what awaits Israel in the coming years.
- A cabal of Netanyahu cronies and family members,
- racist messianic settlers, and
- Orthodox parties with opportunistic designs on the state budget
will drag Israel toward a new single-state reality that will resemble apartheid South Africa.
If there is any consolation, it is that the Israeli left and center – from Meretz and Labor to the Arab parties and Blue and White – still collectively represents almost half of the electorate. A bold leader who is willing to fight for Israel’s soul could prevail, but only by unapologetically allying with Israeli Arabs. That is not just the best electoral strategy. It is also the right thing to do.
Israel’s prime minister increasingly resembles America’s 37th president.
When the final chapter on Benjamin Netanyahu’s political life is written — and it may be a long time from now — he is likely to go down as the Richard Nixon of Israel: politically cunning, strategically canny, toxically flawed.
The flaws came further to light on Thursday when Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced that he would indict the prime minister on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu called the inquiry “a witch hunt” and accused Mandelblit of being “weak,” sounding (surely not by coincidence) just like Donald Trump on the subject of Jeff Sessions and the Russia investigation.
Israeli law allows Netanyahu to contest the indictment through a hearing, a process that could take as long as a year. He has no intention of resigning and hopes to win a fifth term when elections are held on April 9.
Perhaps he will. He shouldn’t.
That’s not because Netanyahu is necessarily guilty, or guilty of much. Previous Israeli leaders, including Yitzhak Rabin, have been subject to legal inquests that hinge on relatively trivial crimes. The charges against Netanyahu — the most serious of which involves the claim that he helped a businessman obtain favorable regulatory decisions in exchange for positive media coverage — are still far from conclusive.
Netanyahu’s solution has been to scrounge for votes on the farther — and farthest — right. A few of those votes will come from Otzma Yehudit (or “Jewish Power”), a racist party descended from Rabbi Meir Kahane’s outlawed Kach Party. Its leader, Michael Ben-Ari, was denied a United States visa because Washington rightly considers Kach a terrorist organization. If Netanyahu manages to cobble together a ruling coalition, Ben-Ari could become a power broker within it.
That alone is reason enough to want to see Netanyahu given the boot. Add to the list his
- demagogic attacks on Israeli Arabs, his
- closeness to far-right European leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban and his
- public sympathy for an Israeli soldier who killed a wounded Palestinian terrorist in cold blood, and a consistent picture emerges.
Netanyahu is a man for whom no moral consideration comes before political interest and whose chief political interest is himself. He is a cynic wrapped in an ideology inside a scheme.
Nor is the blight simply moral. Jews the world over face a swelling and increasingly deadly tide of anti-Semitism, while Zionism has become a dirty word in left-wing circles. To have an Israeli prime minister lend credence to the slur that Zionism is a form of racism by prospectively bringing undoubted racists into his coalition is simply unforgivable. It emboldens the progressive assault on Israel. It leaves its defenders embarrassed and perplexed.
Most seriously, it weakens a central element in the defense of Israel and the Jews: moral self-confidence. Anti-Israel slanders may abound, but they will do little to hurt the state if a majority of Israelis understand they have no serious foundation in truth. Netanyahu’s behavior jeopardizes that confidence.