The drastic deterioration of Israel’s democracy was surprisingly rapid.
The mass prayers on Yom Kippur and Sukkot led to a severe further rise in the level of COVID-19 related morbidity and left the premier, so he explained, with no alternative but to declare an unlimited National State of Emergency.
The third lockdown was truly hermetic, everything except for food stores, pharmacies and, of course, the ultra-Orthodox sector. Demonstrations were banned completely and the police demonstrated newly-found and impressive, sometimes ferocious, enforcement capabilities.
As in the first lockdown, the entire legal system was closed down, but this time for an indefinite period. A few Supreme Court justices criticized the decision and tried to continue their judicial work, including the premier’s trial, but were placed under preventative detention.
In a truly inspirational address to the nation, the premier explained that this regrettable move was necessary in order to protect the honorable justices from a furious mob which threatened to besiege the Court and because of the numerous threats against their lives on social media.
The Ministry of Justice issued a statement saying that it had received no such information, and the National Cyber Directorate was unable to identify any threats on social media. The premier, however, preferred a cautious and pre-emptive approach.
The Attorney General, Avichai Mendelblit, was fired when it turned out that he had hidden exculpatory information regarding the premier’s trial in a safe in his home. In the fiery rhetoric for which he is known, Mendelblit maintained that the entire story was a fabrication and that no such information had ever existed.
- They fought for Israel’s independence. Now they’re on the streets fighting Netanyahu
- I just moved from New York’s COVID ground zero to Israel’s. It's much worse here
- In ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem, Yom Kippur was stronger than the virus
- There's a war outside, and Netanyahu has gone missing
His protests were to no avail, however, when Likud Minister Dudi Amsalem, a man renowned for his moral rectitude and sagacity, announced officially, on behalf of the Unity Government, that the evidence against him was incontrovertible. The new attorney general, who had headed the prime minister’s legal team until recently, promised an in-depth investigation.
Needless to say, meetings of the Knesset were banned for the duration of the state of emergency. Just a few days before it was due to have expired, however, a mysterious fire broke out in the Knesset, requiring that it be closed for an indefinite period of repairs.
A written statement issued by the coalition spokesman, MK Micky Zohar, whose strident rhetoric was inversely related to his erudition, explained that "blackshirted leftist anarkist [sic] anti-Semites paid by George Soros torched the Knesset."
Kachol Lavan party leaders Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi fought bravely to defend the legislative branch. Following Netanyahu’s sweeping victory in the new elections, however, they acceded to his entirely reasonable demand that the Knesset be closed permanently.
The executive branch, they agreed, was quite capable of governing on its own and there truly was no reason for such expensive outlays, especially at a time when Israel faced grave national security challenges.
Israel’s Arab population finally began taking the pandemic seriously and obeyed the new lockdown assiduously. Nevertheless, the government decided to conduct a broad campaign of preventative detentions, "just to be on the safe side."
MK Ahmed Tibi, a physician by training, who had repeatedly called upon the Arab public to observe the earlier lockdowns, was detained, as was the chairman of the party to which he belongs, the Joint List, MK Ayman Odeh. The Joint List itself was declared “unnecessary” and forced to disband.
IDF forces were deployed around the nation in order to provide logistical help for families in distress, distributing food, medicines and psychological care. Over time, however, the IDF was increasingly called upon to assist the police with law enforcement.
The smiling, bored faces of the IDF’s children-soldiers and reservists, at roadblocks around the country, were soon replaced by the stony expressions of standing army professionals. Their families’ livelihoods and their own careers depended on their carrying out their new policing duties.
Reservists who expressed opposition to the policing duties were initially discharged from service, but IDF policy became less forgiving following the appointment of Amir Ohana to the newly unified position of Minister of Defense, Police and Justice.
Troublemakers among the reservists, including prominent heroes of Israel’s wars and former senior defense officials, were sentenced to lengthy periods in military detention and sent to the Keziot and Holot prisons in the Negev. Both were soon overflowing.
The chief of staff did his utmost to keep the IDF out of politics, but suddenly announced that he was going abroad for a year of academic studies. He was to be replaced by the Minister of Education and ex-general Yoav Galant, known for his sunny smiles and eloquence. Galant’s single-minded determination to open the school year, bravely fighting off epidemiological experts, triggered an indefinite national and academic lockdown, and proved his most illustrious contribution to the future achievements of Israel’s youth.
Following a Hamas rocket attack, a number of generals were dismissed, when they privately expressed reservations regarding what they considered an unnecessary escalation of the hostilities by the premier, which resulted in weeks of fighting and numerous Israeli casualties.
Much of the public, focused on the fighting, missed the announcement regarding the decision to appoint younger and more offensive-minded generals to the IDF General Staff and to grant the premier sole responsibility for their appointment. The announcement explained that this streamlined process would eliminate the time-consuming need for the defense minister’s approval, a check on prime ministerial power now deemed obviously unnecessary.
Media coverage was generally supportive of the government, with the exception of the usual malcontents, whose airtime was initially cut, but who were subsequently "suspended" when they persisted in airing unhealthy and defeatist reports. A TV meteorologist was also dismissed on the grounds that her forecasts of heatwaves were sowing public discontent.
The publisher and editors of Haaretz were sentenced to lengthy periods for incitement, treason and "unnecessarily leftist views."
Signs of economic collapse abounded on streets everywhere and the hundreds of thousands of unemployed from the days of the second lockdown became a distant memory as the numbers out of work hit the millions. The depleted state budget could no longer provide transfer payments, except for the Haredim, and unemployment and welfare payments ceased.
For the first time in Israel’s history, the threat of starvation hung in the air. A scared and desperate population withdrew into itself and acquiesced in sullen silence.
That unique and wonderful Israeli spark, which had lit the fire behind thousands of startups, animated an extraordinarily rich cultural life and inspired remarkable scientific achievement, sputtered, and died out.
* * * *
By this time numerous readers must be muttering to themselves; enough is enough, this time you have really overdone it, Freilich, big time. Israeli democracy is stronger than this, we have known difficult times in the past and always come out ahead. There is a limit to negativity and defeatism.
I am sure they are right. In truth, I never imagined in my worst nightmares that I would ever be driven to writing an article like this about Israel. I was born an inveterate Zionist and one cannot be a Zionist without being an optimist.
But are you really sure? No pesky doubts?
If you share my misgivings, if you feel the foundations of Israel’s democracy fracturing as never before, go out and demonstrate, shout your defiance from every balcony, swamp social media with posts, cry out in every direction. Don’t give this government a moment’s rest. Not a second’s respite. While you still can.
Chuck Freilich, a former deputy Israeli national security adviser, teaches political science at Columbia and Tel Aviv universities. He is the author of "Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change" (Oxford University Press, 2018). Twitter: @FreilichChuck