Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war against his police investigators and state prosecutors is expanding in stages and advancing according to plan. Initially, only the police investigators were bent. After the State Prosecutor’s Office embraced the police recommendations to indict Netanyahu, they were deemed corrupt as well. In recent days, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit has also been inducted into Netanyahu’s rogues’ gallery, after the evidence reportedly convinced him that Netanyahu should be charged with at least one count of bribery. If and when they appear to be leaning against him, the judges who might preside at the prime minister’s theoretical trial will replace Mendelblit at the top of Netanyahu’s hit list.
Netanyahu’s latest tirade against Mendelblit on Saturday night was particularly false-faced, as Shakespeare would put it. Netanyahu has brazenly used and abused his prime ministerial pulpit to publicly bully his investigators and potential indicters. He has dispatched his minions in the Knesset and on social media to besmirch, harangue and pressure the entire legal system to cease and desist. But Netanyahu nevertheless took umbrage at Mendelblit’s feeble effort to protect his good name in a solitary interview on the Israel Television News Company, describing it as intolerable and touting it as proof of his former cabinet secretary and close confidant’s biased and sinister intent.
Netanyahu’s angry reaction was enough for the right to declare open season on Mendelblit and his good name. For dedicated Netanyahu aficionados and, increasingly, for the entire right wing, questions of right or wrong, just or unjust, proper or improper and even legal or illegal are no longer relevant. The only true measure of a man’s (or woman’s) worth is whether they are blindly loyal to Netanyahu. Any indication that they aren’t or any sign that they prioritize other values – such as democracy, decency and the rule of law – above Netanyahu’s continued leadership and personal well-being automatically brands them as mortal enemies.
Netanyahu’s obvious but lesser objective is to deter his prosecutors from indicting him. His greater and more threatening aim is to cast himself as the victim of a leftist cabal and to inflame and incite his loyal base all the way to a resounding victory in the April 9 election. The more unequivocal his triumph, the more Netanyahu can cite his renewed popular mandate to crush Israel’s legal apparatus into their submission and his exoneration.
It is wrong, however, to isolate Netanyahu’s vendetta against the legal system and to view it through the narrow prism of his unconscionable efforts to escape the long arm of the law. Such a view deprives Netanyahu’s battles of their historical background and sociological context. In actual fact, Netanyahu is leading the final and possibly fatal push in the right wing’s 40-year rebellion against the rule of law. And he is marshaling right-wing grievances and long-held resentments that have been in hibernation even longer.
The Israeli right vs. the law
The right’s decades-old campaign to impose its political will on the legal system was once seen as a direct outgrowth of the occupation and as a specific tactic focused on freeing the military and the Jewish settler movement from the shackles of Israeli and international law. Netanyahu has now added his personal prestige and his knack for manipulating the right wing’s obsessive sense of victimhood to the overall assault on courts that question the legality of land seizures in the West Bank, military jurists who impose limitations on the army’s license to kill and an internal security service that continues to investigate, detain and, in rare cases, prosecute Jewish terrorists as if they were no different, perish the thought, from Arab terrorists who carry out identical acts of violence.
Gradually, but at a rapidly accelerating pace since the pivotal 2015 general election, the campaign that once focused on the Supreme Court for its unduly “activist” interventions – a waning tendency that may have been smothered completely by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s conservative appointments to the bench – has expanded to a full-frontal assault against the very concept of the rule of law, and from there to an all-out offensive against the foundations of the state the right-wingers still claim they love more than anyone else.
Few institutions have stayed immune. Israeli academia, culture and civil society are routinely portrayed as pockets of treacherous left-wing resistance, led and influenced by the media, which was, is and always will be the right’s preferred whipping boy. These, however, are traditional targets of right-wing populism, in Israel, the United States and other authoritarian-leaning countries in which it currently holds sway. It is the sustained assault on hitherto sacrosanct and ostensibly apolitical institutions, including the president and the Israel Defense Forces, that highlight the right’s intention to undermine the State of Israel itself.
In the recent past alone, senior Likud politicians have depicted the army as timid, restrained and, as Naftali Bennett asserted last month, beholden to the diktats of meddlesome military attorneys. Former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot may have won praise at his farewell ceremony last week from Netanyahu on down, but he was denounced and disparaged by senior cabinet ministers for failing to intervene on behalf of convicted killer Elor Azaria, who shot a prone, wounded terrorist in Hebron.
Rather than backing his army chief for defending the rule of law and protecting the Israeli army’s reputation, Netanyahu preferred to console Azaria’s parents for their son’s travails. He also fell silent in the face of radical right demonstrators who advised Eisenkot that he would soon meet the same fate as Yitzhak Rabin. When Netanyahu decided last month to refrain from responding to Hamas rocket attacks, one of his chief front men, former coalition chief David Bitan, savaged Eisenkot for failing to produce sufficiently aggressive battle plans. Here’s another limp leftie, he implied.
In recent days, it is the Shin Bet, another bedrock of the modern Israeli state, which has borne the brunt of right-wing rage. The tone and tenor of the attacks on the security service, for its allegedly cruel interrogation of minors suspected of causing the death of a Palestinian woman, made it clear that the secretive counterintelligence unit was now part and parcel of the evil empire seeking to destroy Israel from within.
Netanyahu’s grudge against his legacy
The right’s war on Israeli democracy is a direct consequence of the cult of personality that Netanyahu has built around himself. In the eyes of his avid fans, Netanyahu is above the law. His greatness exempts him from constitutional checks and balances. Faced with a choice between Netanyahu’s continued rule and the pesky norms of a vibrant democracy, right-wingers are increasingly opting for the former while escalating their hostilities toward the latter.
The roots of the right-wing war on Israel, however, run far deeper than Netanyahu’s personal fate or the campaign to legitimize Jewish settlements. They stem from the history of Israel, in general, and of Likud in particular. The nationalist, ethnocentric and anti-liberal impulses of the Israeli right were always there, like smoldering embers, awaiting a leader like Netanyahu who would recklessly pour fuel and set them afire.
Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, Netanyahu’s two Likud predecessors, were leaders of underground movements described by many, including the leaders of the pre-state Yishuv, as terrorist groups. Begin was idolized to a degree that Netanyahu can only dream of, but his quest for acceptance and respectability, as well as the vantage point of a politician who languished for close to 30 years in the minority opposition, neutralized his own authoritarian instincts and made him a staunch defender of Israeli democracy and a pedantic stickler for minority rights and the rules of the game.
Shamir – who belonged to the notorious Lehi group, which made Begin’s Irgun look pacifist and tame in comparison – was single-mindedly dedicated to strengthening Israel’s hold on the Greater Land of Israel. Tinkering with Israeli democracy, with all the internal upheaval it would entail, would have been too much of a distraction. Shamir had greater goals on his mind.
The far younger Netanyahu, supposedly unburdened by Begin and Shamir’s historical baggage, lacked the kind of internal resilience and self-confidence that his predecessors derived from their pre-state battle for independence. Netanyahu was left with the resentments and grievances imbued in him by his historian father, Benzion Netanyahu, who blamed the ruling Mapai establishment for denying him the stature and respect he deserved. His father’s grudges became Netanyahu’s demons, priming him for his eventual war on the institutions of Israeli democracy, which, twisted by his vanity and self-pity, assumed the face of his own worst enemy.
A victim of the democratic establishment
It was David Ben-Gurion who sanctified the untranslatable Hebrew word mamlachtiyut, the Israeli version of statism. Mamlachtiyut was Ben-Gurion’s recipe for transforming the revolutionary pre-state Yishuv into a modern functioning democracy. It sought to move decision-making power from the separate and often feuding groups that participated in the making of Israel and to vest it exclusively in the unified institutions of a modern state.
Ben-Gurion not only oversaw the disassembly of the right-wing Lehi and Irgun undergrounds; he ordered the dismantling of the left’s jewel in the crown, the elitist Palmach brigades – a controversial move lamented by many on the left to this very day. A modern democracy cherishes its institutions, Ben-Gurion believed, rather than the partisan and law-defying paramilitary groups that fought for its creation.
Begin’s collaboration was instrumental in ensuring Ben-Gurion’s success, which nonetheless sewed the seeds of the right’s future discontent. Given that in Israel’s first 30 years of existence the state’s institutions, as well as its most powerful political forces, were all dominated by Mapai, the right-wing’s sense of unfair discrimination was entrenched in its collective psyche. It was fueled not only by what the right perceived as Mapai’s long-standing and self-serving political favoritism, but as a manifestation of the deeper and more inflammatory prejudice of Mapai’s Ashkenazi majority against the Sephardi rank and file that flocked, as a direct result, to the right’s underground movement before 1948 and to Begin’s Herut party after Israel was established.
Begin, and to a lesser degree Shamir, walked a fine line between defending the fledgling Israeli democracy and exploiting the pent-up resentments of their electorate against its Ashkenazi- and Mapai-dominated institutions. Netanyahu, despite his periodic outbursts against elites and the media, seemed for many years to be following in their footsteps. His dozen years in power, however, haven’t instilled in him a renewed appreciation for the democracy that enabled his ascent to the top, as might have been expected. Instead, they nurtured his sense of victimhood and aggravated his antipathy toward what he perceives as the leftist-dominated establishment that is hounding him, including the state’s bedrock institutions.
In his last four years in power, at Netanyahu’s instigation and direction, the right has pounced on President Reuven Rivlin, whose post is the clearest embodiment of mamlachtiyut, for the cardinal sin of occasionally voicing muted criticism of their Supreme Leader. The right has trained its guns on the army, the independent judiciary and the civil service, essentially equating their vows of loyalty to the state with disloyalty to the higher power of Netanyahu. They have trained their guns on the rule of law, without which Israel is just another banana republic, and on its world-renowned academia, civil society and free press – the once proud expressions of a healthy and vibrant Israeli democracy.
In the process, Netanyahu’s legions are degrading and tainting the very values that underpin Israel’s claim to fame as the only democracy in the Middle East. Dissent is disloyalty, free speech is an enemy, human rights are a travesty and the independent judiciary nothing more than a leftist front. On at least two occasions, Netanyahu has even described the opposition’s wish to unseat him in democratic elections as a form of treachery.
It is no coincidence that the once-venerated Declaration of Independence, with its promise of justice and equality for all, is increasingly seen on the right as a dangerous document that needs to be shunned and eventually consigned to the dustbin of history. It is definitely no coincidence that the controversial nation-state law was crafted in a way that essentially turned the concrete pledges of the Declaration into dead letters.
Taken together, the right’s incitement against its imaginary threats constitutes an overall repudiation of the basic building blocks of democracy and of the very foundations of the Israeli state itself. The campaign led and inspired by Netanyahu isn’t aimed at correcting specific slights; it is an all-out blitz against Israel itself. Its ultimate goal is to unravel Ben-Gurion’s concept mamlachtiyut and to replace it with the unbridled partisanship of the political right and the powerful lobby of Jewish settlers that supports it.
It is no exaggeration, therefore, to depict the upcoming election as being much more than a personal referendum on Netanyahu and whether he should pay for his alleged crimes. It is more than a critical decision on the direction of Israeli policies over the next four years. More than any previous ballot, the upcoming April 9 election is, in many ways, the final and decisive battle over Israel’s very soul. Its outcome will determine Israel’s fate not for one single term but for many years to come.