The prospect of an extreme right-wing government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the stuff of nightmares, but not specifically from a diplomatic or security standpoint. From a diplomatic standpoint, the normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates and the election of Joe Biden as president of the United States have taken annexation of West Bank territories off the agenda. From a security standpoint, Netanyahu understands better than any of his would-be successors the limits of power and is not looking for additional military operations and wars.
However, from the standpoint of democracy and rule of law, Netanyahu is the most dangerous of them all. With an extreme right-wing government, the judicial system would be attacked from every direction – by the ultra-Orthodox, who prefer Jewish religious law, halakha, by the Religious Zionism party, which wishes to legalize the occupation's injustices, by Yamina party leaders Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who demand greater governability, and above all, by Netanyahu himself, who is standing trial. Indeed, his criminal trial is the reason why Israel is going to the polls for the fourth time in roughly two years.
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In normal times, Netanyahu would need a strong judicial system more than anything to manage a nightmare government in which the extreme right-wing leader of Otzma Yehudit, Itamar Ben-Gvir, is a cabinet minister or chairman of a major Knesset committee. Such a court system would put the wild ideas of the extreme right in proportion, set limits to extortion by the ultra-Orthodox parties and expose Bennett and Shaked’s governability demands as a bluff. Were it not for his legal problems, Netanyahu would have preferred a strong judiciary that would pull the chestnuts from the fire for him, polish Israel's image as a respectable country and play the role of bad cop while the prime minister curries the favor of his coalition partners.
This election is not only between Netanyahu and the trio of Yair Lapid, Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar – who together make one – but between the ongoing trampling of the country’s institutions and their abandonment for the sake of a Netanyahu personality cult on the one hand and calling a temporary cease-fire in the offensive against them on the other. Bennett and Sa’ar’s point of departure when it comes to the judiciary is more extreme than Netanyahu’s. They want a weaker judicial system that won’t interfere in the government’s pursuit of a right-wing agenda including settlement construction, exclusive rights for Jews, the expulsion of asylum seekers and legalizing unauthorized West Bank outposts.
Netanyahu is left-wing compared to them. He has long lived in peace with a judiciary that restrains the appetites of his partners on the right. It suits him just fine for the courts to rule on issues about which the hard right pressures him or makes him uncomfortable. He may regularly express sympathy on the issue of governability but does so rhetorically. His issue with the judicial system is entirely personal.
When he talks of the criminal cases against him being fixed and calls for “investigating the investigators,” and when he stands at the entrance of the courthouse where his trial is being held, flanked by Likud cabinet ministers, he is destroying public confidence in the judiciary and conveying the message that nothing is off limits. Sa’ar and Bennett have their own destructive ideas, but they have more inhibitions and, as it stands now, are not personally tainted by corruption.
In 2013, I had the chance to be hosted by Netanyahu along with several other journalists from the Haaretz business daily, TheMarker, at his Tel Aviv office. The prime minister opened the meeting with a remark that now sounds unbelievable. “You produce an excellent newspaper,” he said.
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I mention this not for purposes of self-promotion, but as a reminder that there was a different Netanyahu prior to the indictments against him. Granted that at the time, he was deeply engaged in his battles with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes, but even apart from Mozes, he was able to conduct a critical, pointed discussion and to present a liberal face that did not aim to undermine the world order or to divide the country.
The criminal investigations against him, followed by his indictment and the beginning of the trial last year stripped him of his statesmanlike bearing and of his red lines and fueled hatred. “Hatred is what unites our camp,” Nathan Eshel, his close associate has said.
Netanyahu is more experienced than any of those who would pretend to replace him and more talented and charismatic than any of them. And, he is currently the most dangerous one for Israel.
His reelection as prime minister would not only show that the public is at peace with having a prime minister under criminal indictment. It might also cause him to step up his personal battle against the judicial system, to threaten the attorney general and to weaken the State Prosecutor’s Office and the police. He is creating the impression that his case is not the State of Israel vs. Benjamin Netanyahu, as the indictment states, but Netanyahu vs. the State of Israel.
Is it reasonable for half of the people to be against the State of Israel? That’s what the voters are facing this Election Day. In the course of all of the investigations against him and the beginning of his trial, Netanyahu has never said anything to calm things down, to show that he understands and will accept the judgment of the courts. He and his associates are unceasingly making noise and cooking up plans for immunity laws and to evade trial.
It hasn’t worked so far, but there is concern that if he scores big in this election, it will be interpreted as giving him a license to kill the Israeli law enforcement system. That’s what’s at stake in this election. Yes, there are also economic, social, security and health-related issues, but on that score, there are no substantial differences among the candidates.