Analysis

In Netanyahu’s Israel, Democracy Is Dying in Broad Daylight

Ominous pre-election right-wing purges inspired by Trump's brazenness have been met with apathy and impotence on the center-left

Benjamin Netanyahu, March 2019.
Kobi Gideon / GPO

Israel’s state comptroller, who doubles as the country’s official ombudsman, has always ranked high among so-called Supreme Auditing Institutions around the world. His independence, quasi-legal powers, scope of authority, public standing and defense of government ethics were the envy of fellow auditors in both democratic and non-democratic countries. Well, it was nice while it lasted.

Matanyahu Englman, the new state comptroller elected in July by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-dominated Knesset, seems hell-bent on stripping his august position of its previous stature. He is voluntarily relinquishing the powers accumulated by successive state comptrollers since the post was established in 1949. He is stripping his office of its authority to recommend criminal proceedings and degrading its oversight of government ethics.

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Englman’s most aggressive moves, however, have been reserved for the Government Oversight Committee, specifically its repeated and adamant refusal to allow multi-millionaire Netanyahu to accept external funding for his legal defense in the myriad criminal cases he’s been implicated in. Englman's first step was to berate the committee for its refusal. He then accepted the protest resignation of its members and, come September, is replacing the entire Committee with a new crew packed with personalities known to be associated with Netanyahu and Likud. 

Legal authorities claim that the new committee will be hard-pressed to overturn the outgoing Committee’s ostensibly binding decisions to refuse Netanyahu’s request for a $2 million loan from his cousin Nathan Milikowsky - who also happens to be a person of interest in Netanyahu’s criminal investigations - or their directive that Netanyahu return a $300,000 “loan” he took without waiting for approval, while his request to the committee was pending. Said legal authorities, however, may be living in a rapidly-disappearing past, one in which the law takes precedence over the prime minister’s needs and wishes and the state comptroller is an experienced judge, as his predecessors were, and not an unapologetic political hack.

The politicization, degradation and ultimate castration of the once-sacrosanct State Comptroller’s Office, however, is not an isolated occurrence. It is part of a widespread catch-as-catch-can purge of the Israeli civil service in general and the neutralization of its legal institutions in particular. The upheaval is cloaked in an ideology of good governance and of correcting a non-existent “leftist tilt” but Netanyahu’s clear aim is to punish and deter police and legal authorities connected to his criminal investigation and supposedly imminent indictments.

Thus, Netanyahu bypassed senior Likud politicians to appoint a relative newcomer, Amir Ohana, as Justice Minister. Ohana’s main qualifications for the job seems to be obsequious groveling, depiction of the Netanyahu probe as a leftist witch-hunt and statements challenging the supremacy of Israel’s High Court of Justice. Ohana’s first step in his new post was to replace his ministry’s veteran director general with a personal confidante and to sack all of his bureau’s employees with party supporters and family acquaintances, including his cousin.

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In the meantime, Netanyahu is blocking the appointment of a new Commissioner of Police, leaving the force headless and rudderless for over eight months. He enjoys the fruits of former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s relentless campaign to pack Israeli courts with conservative-leaning judges. And even though Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit has bent over backwards in order to accommodate the prime minister, garnering vociferous protests from legal experts, he has been subjected to endless taunts depicting him as “weak” and “beholden to the media” after each and every decision that didn’t completely meet Netanyahu’s demands.

Englman, ironically, is partially responsible for the politically-inspired degradation of another hitherto well-respected Israeli public commission: The Council for Higher Education’s Planning and Budgeting Committee, which distributes close to $4 billion annually to Israel’s universities and colleges. Englman, an accountant by profession, who headed the Planning and Budget Committee before becoming State Comptroller, was harshly criticized for politicizing its deliberations and decisions on the opening of a new medical school at Ariel University in the West Bank.

After newly installed Education Minister Rafi Peretz recently deposed Tel Aviv University’s Professor Yossi Shein from the Budgeting Committee, allegedly for opposing the Ariel expansion, the Technion’s Professor Yishayahu Talmon resigned last week in protest. With his departure, the veneer of Israeli institutions of higher learning as non-partisan and apolitical has also been tarnished.

The recent political purges highlight the confluence of Netanyahu’s desperate bid to avoid prosecution with the ultra-right’s ideological aversion to whatever remains of Israel’s liberal democracy. Netanyahu’s willingness to torch the rule of law for his own personal ends opens the way for the ultra-right, in Likud and its satellites, to fulfill long held dreams of obliterating constitutional impediments and legal restrictions on religious coercion, settlements in the West Bank, discrimination against minorities and the like. Netanyahu’s colleagues realize that his desperation gives them a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to demolish Israel’s liberal underpinnings and replace them with their nationalist-theocratic ideology.

Netanyahu’s new wave of purges, however, also draws inspiration from his friend in the White House, Donald Trump. Although the Israeli prime minister is an old hand at political machinations and mastered every trick in the book before the U.S. presidency was even a twinkle in Trump’s eye, Netanyahu has embraced Trump’s brazenness and willingness to defy any and all criticism from any quarter other than his base. The hallmark of Netanyahu’s recent moves has been their sheer chutzpah, especially as they emanate from a government in transition before elections, which have traditionally been barred from making significant policy decisions or personnel appointments.

Netanyahu’s moves should thus be viewed as a tame preview – and dire warning – of what lies in store for Israeli democracy and the rule of law should his right-wing coalition succeed in garnering a 61-seat majority in the September 17 election, rendering it independent of Avigdor Lieberman’s maneuvers. The bonfires that Netanyahu and his agents are currently lighting in various corners of Israel’s system of checks and balances will turn into a blazing inferno that will ultimately consume Israeli democracy itself.

Astonishingly – and depressingly for Israelis fearful for their country’s future – Netanyahu’s aggressive sabotage of revered institutions is being met with public apathy and political timidity. Israelis, possibly more concerned with their summer vacations, haven’t taken to the streets to protest Netanyahu’s moves. Their leaders in the center-left haven’t emerged from their curious summer hibernation, four weeks before Israelis head to the polls.

The elections will decide the ultimate fate of both Netanyahu as well as Israeli democracy and rule of law, but in the meantime it seems the Washington Post was overly optimistic in affixing the slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness” to its masthead. In Israel, democracy is dying in broad daylight, surrounded by paralyzed bystanders tsk-tsking themselves to a dark and ominous future.