Coronavirus Crisis Accelerates Israel’s Slide Into Erdogan-style Authoritarianism

Israel joins an unsavory club of states led by hard right government weaponizing coronavirus fears to target political enemies and settle old scores

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A protester near Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein's home on March 20, 2020.
A demonstrator near Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein's home on March 20, 2020 holding a 'black flag' signalling concern for the deterioration in Israel's democracyCredit: Tomer Appelbaum
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

Monday is an important test for Israeli democracy. The Knesset is due to resume its deliberations amidst the political crisis and the spread of the coronavirus. 

If the Knesset chairman Yuri Edelstein, backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his political hatchetmen from Likud, continue with their delay tactics to prevent the legislative branch performing its duty, Israel will win the dubious title of the only "parliamentary democracy" to fail to recognize the results of its last democratic general election and to be governed by an inoperative parliament.

If the parliamentary session does take place,it is very likely that Edelstein from the Likud will be replaced by Meir Cohen from the Kahol Lavan party, which, together with its partners - Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Avigdor Liberman, Labor-Meretz and the Joint List - enjoy a majority of 61 seats out of 120.

Regardless  of what happens in the Knesset, the long list of anti-democratic measures taken, or attempts to introduce them, by Netanyahu and his right-wing-clerical coalition, indicate their true intentions and aspirations.

Over the last five years of his rule, which began in 2010, Netanyahu has waged war against the free independent media, the judiciary, the police and other gatekeepers such as the State Comptroller, as well as various government regulators. He eventried to select a police commissioner and chief of staff to his liking - but failed.

Protestor holds a sign reading in Hebrew: "Democracy" in front of a sign reading “No to dictatorship” outside the Knesset in Jerusalem. March 19, 2020Credit: Eyal Warshavsky,AP

Who would have believed a year ago that Israel, once proudly complimented itself as "the only democracy in the Middle East," now – thanks to the troubling mix of Netanyahu and COVID-19 - faces an almost dystopian reality.

Israel’s borders are closed. Flights are banned. Non-essential business are closed. Israelis are told to stay at home and the police has issued fines against those who violate those instructions. 

The courts are partially shut down. Edelstein has tried to shut down the Knesset and suspended its sessions. The police – without a current permanent chief - is suppressing legal demonstrations and interrogating demonstrators about their political affiliations. 

Netanyahu ordered the Shin Bet, the domestic security service, to use digital surveillance to track down those suspected of being in contact with persons who are already infected. While it may be that most Israelis agree with this controversial decision,and see it as an unavoidable necessity, still the manner in which it was implemented – without judicial or parliamentary oversight or scrutiny - worry many others.

Instead of basing the decision on the law (the Shin Bet Law of 2002), which requires the approval of the Knesset, Netanyahu introduced the measures by activating the outdated emergency laws which were passed far back in 1939 by the British, after the outbreak of the Second World War, which at the time ruled Mandatory Palestine. 

Netanyahu appears every night on prime-time television channels as the only official voice to brief the people about the spread of the coronavirus

But these broadcasts serve also as a blatant form of self- promotion glorifying his rule as the "savior" of the nation. His preaching, and the many references to his wife Sara, on live TV and in his press releases, are analogous to a personality cult. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. March 8, 2020Credit: AFP

In his appearances, he tries to hide his direct responsibility for Israel’s over-stressed health care services. Israel faces a shortage of essential life-saving medical equipment, understaffed doctors and nurses, a lack of hospital beds and has been the victim of a series of wrong-headed decisions about how to confront the pandemic.

Concerned Israelis ask themselves: what next? What else Netanyahu has in his arsenal? If the trend continues and Israel is left without a functioning parliament, the prime minister could, for example, use emergency laws to issue a budget without the approval of the Knesset.

True, many countries in the world, including western democracies, have introduced unprecedented measures, some of which are similar. But Israel is one of the few democracies whose leader is trying to manipulate the situation as a pretext to consolidate the power of a caretaker leader and his party. 

Already, many Israelis feel that Netanyahu is using the political crisis and the coronavirus crisis to effect a quiet, bloodless coup d’état.A sign of the deep discomfort is the mass participation of an estimated 600,000 Israelis in an online "demonstration" Saturday evening – nearly seven percent of the entire population.

Israel is on its way to joining an unsavory club of states embarking on the same path. Opposition leaders and Prime Minister-designate Benny Gantz, head of Kahol Lavan, have already compared Netanyahu to Turkey’s authoritarian leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. How accurate is this comparison? How far, or near, is Israel from becoming today’s Turkey? 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a press conference on the fight against the coronavirus. Cankaya Palace, Ankara, March 18, 2020Credit: AFP

Under Erdogan, Turkey has already ceased to be a fully-functioning democracy. There are many similarities between Turkey and Israel; the assault against the media, the judiciary, the parliament and opposition political parties, the consistent scapegoating and silencing of an ethnic/national minority, and the influence of clericalism.

But there is one crucial distinction. Erdogan managed to take over the army and shape it in his image. In Israel, with its "people’s army," Netanyahu knows that it is impossible. The IDF reflects the same divisions and controversies that exist in the rest of the society. Most Israeli military commanders are loyal to their conscience and perform their duties according to the law. 

Yet there are other nations taking similar measures to Netanyahu – and even far more radical steps, too, such as Honduras, Slovenia and Hungary. They – together with other countries such as Poland and Brazil – have many common traits. They are led by hard right nationalist governments who are committed to quashing any political opposition. 

Hungary’s Victor Orban, Poland’s de facto leader Jaroslav Kaczynski and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, are all democratically elected, but are known for their authoritarian tendencies: as Orban is proud of saying, his vision is of an "illiberal democracy." Not by chance, all these leaders are good friends of Netanyahu.

Less well known is Janez Janša, the prime minister of Slovenia, a nation of two million people. Jansa, the undisputed leader of his SDS party for the last 27 years, was sentenced in 2013 to two years in prison on corruption charges. Some of his political supporters have neo-fascist sentiments and support for groups idolizing the Ustasha, Nazi collaborators in Croatia during WWII. He has established a special coronavirus crisis headquarters and is now trying to delegate police powers to the army. 

Slovenian Democratic Party leader Janez Jansa after being elected as prime minister by its National Assembly. Ljubljana, Slovenia, March 3, 2020Credit: AFP

Jansa’s new state secretary for national security, who controls the intelligence and security services, is Zan Mahnič. The 30 year-old minister is a supporter of the extreme right "Identitarian Movement" which is banned and under counter-terrorist surveillance in several European countries.

The Slovenian prime minister’ssupporters have in recent weeks echoed and retweeted nasty, threatening tweets against four prominent citizens, weaponizing the coronavirus fears to target political enemies and settle old scores. One of these tweets said: "Psychiatrists are searching for 4 patients who escaped quarantine. They have a virus covid-marks/Lenin."

The four are poet Boris Novak, the world-famous Marxist philosopher and theoretician Slavoj Zizek, Professor Darko Štrajn and investigative journalist Blaz Zgaga. Zgaga has exposed corrupt arms sales in which an Israeli company, Elbit, wasalso mentioned. Eventually his reporting - together with Finnish colleagues - triggered the downfall of Jansa and sent him to jail.

"I am being threatened," he told Haaretz. "Pro-government elements smear me, call me traitor and blame me for the spread of the coronavirus. I really fear for my life."

To show solidarity, the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (in which both Zgaga and I are members) issued a strongly-worded letter to the Slovenian prime minister and to Borut Pahor, the country’s president. Entitled, "Stop attacking journalists for asking for information on COVID-19," the petition condemns "the public attacks and smear campaign by the Slovene government and media supporting the ruling SDS party against our fellow member Blaz Zgaga. We request such attacks against journalists stop immediately."

In 1946, French writer and Nobel Prize laureate Albert Camus wrote "The Plague,” and a year later, British writer George Orwell published "Nineteen Eighty-Four." Both are novels set in a dystopian future. For years, readers viewed the two novels as fantasy, science fiction – reassuringly unrealistic. But every day now we witness how the unreal turns into a troubling reality. 

We have to hope that Israel manages to maintain its moral and political distance from a dystopian future contaminated not just by the coronavirus but by its exploitation for ongoing political repression.

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