Opinion

There Was an Attempted Coup in Israel This Week, and No One Noticed

Israel’s democracy, a marvel compared to its neighbors, is imperfect, tenuous and besieged. In Rome, visiting the most iconic symbol of Jewish exile and captivity, I doubted for the first time that Israel would survive a serious test of its freedoms

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks during an opening session at the Knesset October 15, 2018.
AP/Sebastian Scheiner

I’m writing this column from a conference in Rome and when in Rome, I always pay a pilgrimage to the Arch of Titus - the architectural tribute to Emperor Titus, destroyer of Jerusalem, built 1936 years ago by his brother on the Forum.

No matter how many times you stand there, facing the southern panel with its depiction of the defeated, exiled Jews carrying the vessels of the Temple of Jerusalem to Rome, it’s impossible not to reflect on how far we’ve come. Back in the days before security cameras, I know Israelis who made sure to piss on the arch when no one was looking. And I totally get them.

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November 29, 1944 in the perspective of a child.

Being there this weekend has an extra resonance. In a few days we’ll be commemorating the 71st anniversary of UN Resolution 181 of November 29, 1947, which called for the partition of the British-ruled Palestine Mandate into a Jewish state and an Arab state. Google “Titus Arch 1947” for one of the most moving images of Jewish resurrection - the footage of the Jews of Rome gathering at the arch, along with Holocaust survivors from across Europe.

The archaeological dig at the southern end of the Circus Maximus. The marble columns in the foreground are remains of the Arch of Titus. The tower behind it was part of a medieval fortification
Ariel David

Throughout their history, Roman Jews had observed an unwritten rule never to walk beneath Titus’ Arch. But on the morning of November 30, 1947, they assembled there for the first time in joy, only three years after they had been in hiding, with the Germans rounding up deportations to Auschwitz, while the Vatican turned a blind eye - and made the most incredible prayer in the history of Jewish exile.

The United Nations had voted to establish a Jewish sovereign state in the homeland and finally the Jews of Rome, joined by Holocaust survivors from across Europe, could raise their middle finger to Titus and to history.

Seventy-one years later, are we still worthy of that moment? Does today’s Israel confirm the dreams of those Jews?

One of the forums at the MED 2018 conference, organized by Italy’s public broadcaster RAI and the ISPI think-tank, is a closed discussion of journalists working around the Mediterranean and across the Middle East. Since it’s held under Chatham House rules, I’m not at liberty to discuss what was said there, but as an Israeli journalist, discussing the repression of media together with colleagues from the Arab world, it’s impossible to avoid a fleeting feeling of smugness.

Even the most cynical Israeli hack, who laughs at that awful cliche of “the only democracy in the Middle East,” has to make comparisons in his mind. No matter how much we complain, we have it so much better.

And to be quite honest, coming from the Arch of Titus on Thursday morning, I needed that brief comforting feeling of self-satisfaction. Looking up at the enslaved Jews on the arch, after this farcical political week in Israel, for the first time I seriously began to doubt we had stood the test.

I don’t need to recap for readers the sequence of events in which Israel at one moment seemed to be going to early elections, with Benjamin Netanyahu having lost the confidence of most of his coalition, and on the next day Naftali Bennett spectacularly backed down, agreed to remain in government and Netanyahu once again proved his omnipotence.

But just before Bennett’s statement in the Knesset on Monday morning, there was a moment which few besides the most obsessive political observers noticed.

Miki Zohar, a little-known Likud MK, who currently chairs the Knesset committee in charge of all procedural parliamentary matters, was going around the Knesset, promising to block the planned motion aimed at dissolving the Knesset and bringing forward general elections.

Zohar wasn’t talking of marshaling a parliamentary majority to defeat the vote. He was citing non-existent “security” concerns and “the interest of the state” to prevent what he called “whims of politicians.” In other words, Zohar was saying that even if a dissolution vote would pass, he would obstruct any attempts to allow it to proceed to its final readings, thereby aborting the election process.

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What’s more astonishing is that no one saw fit to call out Zohar. Despite Netanyahu’s regal manner, Israel is a parliamentary democracy and the implications of what his foot soldier Zohar was saying was that Likud would carry out a coup against Israel’s democracy. And yet no one noticed a member of the ruling party called openly for a coup.

I know, it’s difficult to speak of “Israeli democracy” when Israel has for 51 years been holding millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza under military rule with no civil rights. But the whole point is that at least within the Green Line, it has remained an imperfect, but still functioning, democracy.

In some ways, particularly the discrimination against minorities and the lack of full freedom from religion, it is worse than most Western and liberal democracies. But in other aspects, the fairness and transparency of its election system, independence of its judiciary, accountability of elected officials to the law and freedom of speech, few democracies are Israel’s equals.

And here was an elected member of the ruling party openly advocating a coup against the parliamentary majority, the bedrock of Israel’s limited democracy, and not one of his colleagues or of the journalists interviewing him thought it worth pointing out.

The moment passed, Bennett backed down, and Zohar’s machinations were swallowed up in the coverage of how Netanyahu had once again pulled a Houdini. But I can’t forget his smugly stupid face, blithely saying on Monday morning how he planned to take down Israeli democracy.

I can’t read those thousands of joyous Jewish faces in the black-and-white footage from 71 years ago. Who can say what Jewish state they imagined was about to come into being? The Israeli Declaration of Independence, which would be written and signed less than six months later, promised that the new state would be based on “freedom, justice and peace,” and somehow, it was implicit that would mean democracy.

But maybe all it needs is one ignorant MK prepared to do whatever he can to keep Netanyahu in power. It’s tenuous. A right-winger will argue that Zohar is a nobody and who cares what he says – if Bennett had resigned, there would have been an unstoppable majority for dissolving the Knesset and bringing the election forward. And left-wingers will laugh at me for only noticing now how screwed Israeli democracy is.

But they’re both wrong, and anyway, that’s not the point.

Spend a bit of time speaking with our regional neighbors, whose hearts leapt in the early months of 2011 with the prospect of democracy in the Middle East, boosted by the “Facebook revolution” (how quaint and ridiculous any notion of Facebook boosting democracy now sounds) only to see their hopes dashed with even worse repression than before. Every bit of democracy built in Israel over 70 years is precious and can be so easily blown away with excuses of “security” and the “interests of the state.”