Netanyahu’s Latest Antics Are Yet Another Attempt to Loosen Restraints on His Power

Prime minister, in bid to command loyalty from senior officials, holding up the postponement of senior officials to the detriment of the country

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A pro-Netanyahu demonstration in Jerusalem on August 20, 2020.
A pro-Netanyahu demonstration in Jerusalem on August 20, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

The question of what will be the standard for Israel’s civil service is topping the agenda for the near future, at the center of which is the identity of country’s next gatekeepers, namely the police commissioner and state prosecutor. The quality of these figures projects the character of the entire government and the image of the country as a whole.

The very fact that Likud and Kahol Lavan agreed as part of their unity government deal to postpone senior appointments for six months revealed a frivolous attitude that disturbed the High Court of Justice (during its hearing on a petition challenging Benjamin Netanyahu’s eligibility to form a government). Due to the justices’ comments, this period was shortened to 100 days, which will soon end. But the parties’ plan to form a joint committee to discuss the issue will cause further delay.

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A situation in which an acting commissioner has headed the police since 2018 is unreasonable, if not wanton. It undermines the police’s functioning. And a situation in which the senior police officers vying for the job know that the supreme qualification for it isn’t loyalty to the law or the public, but to Public Security Minister Amir Ohana – who serves as an agent within the force for criminal defendant Netanyahu – is intolerable.

The fact that the attorney general has been forced to double as state prosecutor is also a real problem. The attorney general is supposed to oversee the state prosecutor, and nobody can oversee himself.

There’s no substantive reason to postpone these appointments, and it’s too bad the High Court gave the delayers such a long rope. There’s also no justification for the emerging plan to change the appointment procedures, much less to change the kind of the appointees.

The plan to abolish both the committee that vets the character of senior civil service nominees and the search committee for the state prosecutor (and apparently the search committee for the attorney general, too) is meant to dismantle vital bodies created to preserve the qualities essential to a civil service. The most important of these are outstanding professionalism, integrity, independence and civic courage.

Likud’s unconcealed intention is to ride roughshod over these values and replace them with others whose concern is not for the general welfare but rather for people who vote for Likud and its satellite parties alone. Instead of equality before the law, discrimination. Instead of scrupulous integrity, a celebration of corruption, or at least a blind eye to it. Instead of professionalism, loyalty to the ruler. And instead of truth-telling, saying yes to elected officials.

The more flexible their spine, the better. The less professionally fit for the job they are, the better, since that will make them more grateful. Appointees in this system are judged solely on their personal loyalty to whoever appointed them.

Thus someone willing to carry out partisan jobs for the ruler, circumvent the rules of good governance and prove they don’t know how to say no has gained valuable points in the race for the next post to be filled – director of the Shin Bet security service.

It’s worth recalling the tempting offer Netanyahu made to Roni Alsheich just before he was appointed as the previous police commissioner – to make him head of the Shin Bet after he finished his term running the police. This was a corrupt offer, a version of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” – treat me well as police commissioner and I’ll reward you with the job you want.

Alsheich rejected the offer and gave Netanyahu no special treatment during the criminal investigations against him. Consequently, his term as commissioner wasn’t extended and he was accused of fabricating cases for political motives. This sent a message: The same will happen to anyone who treats the prime minister as the law mandates.

Instead of merely having elected officials who don’t work for the country but only for personal or partisan interests, we’ll also get civil servants like that, the hell with the public. Yet Likud ministers still have the nerve to tell us they are doing this in the name of democracy.

If they get their wish, an outstandingly professional civil service will be replaced by an inferior one that will lower the level of all our most vital government agencies and the quality of our public services.

Any government that does this will be able to chalk up one major achievement – governmental corruption will formally disappear, even as it will flourish in broad daylight. However, there won’t be anybody to investigate it or file corruption charges.

They are planning a pincer movement. On top of corrupting the civil service, efforts will continue to appoint judges “who think like us” – i.e., who will approve any government decision. And if the law enforcement and judicial systems cease to be independent and committed to the rule of law, Israel will become a Third World country.

These moves are intended first and foremost to improve Netanyahu’s situation as a criminal defendant. And his claim that he doesn’t intend to intervene in the upcoming appointments won’t reassure anyone but fools. Why does he need to meddle when fawning Likud ministers are rushing to do the work for him?

Yet beyond the personal level, a battle is also raging over the soul of Israel’s government and the country’s character. A vast, multi-tentacled campaign is steadily being waged to transform Israel into a populist, authoritarian, nationalist country. In such a country, the majority uses its unlimited power to perpetuate its rule.

To attain that goal, all checks and balances must be destroyed (the State Comptroller’s Office has already fallen, and the Knesset is being asked to serve as a rubber stamp for all cabinet decisions). And all critics must be silenced, both within the system (senior civil servants) and outside it – the media, culture, higher education, civil society organizations.

Likud is exploiting a grave economic and health crisis to try to destroy democracy and make a mockery of the rule of law. Can Kahol Lavan be trusted to stop it? The party’s record gives cause for deep concern.

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