Analysis |

How to Stop Netanyahu From Destroying What's Left of Israel's Democracy

The government is doing all it can to fight the coronavirus, while the premier moves to demolish Israel's democracy. Only if the center-left parties are in the coalition will they be able to contain Netanyahu

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration: Netanyahu and Edelstein bump elbows as Gantz and Lapid watch and sweat. "Closed" signs hang on the Knesset and the courts.
Illustration: Netanyahu and Edelstein bump elbows as Gantz and Lapid watch and sweat. "Closed" signs hang on the Knesset and the courts.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

In the context of the goings-on in Israel’s Deep State, a few months ago, Yair Netanyahu, the scourge of Twitter, published the following post: “Israel of 2019 is exactly George Orwell’s ‘1984’… I recommend that every Israeli citizen read the book and compare it to what has happened here in recent years.”

Now that the country’s court system has been shut down, the government has placed its citizens under surveillance, the justice minister is attempting to deny Kahol Lavan head Benny Gantz security protection, and the work of the elected parliament has been suspended – we have to salute Netanyahu, Jr.: He was the first to see it.

If we need a unity, or emergency, government, the reason is not the need to battle the coronavirus. There’s no opposition to that struggle. The serving government, despite its permanent temporariness, is taking all the measures it deems necessary to manage this crisis. The prime minister and his cabinet are formulating policy, the civil servants are executing it, the funds are being freed up, and medical personnel in the field are putting their lives on the line.

The heads of Kahol Lavan, Yisrael Beiteinu, Labor and Meretz must become part of the country’s leadership. Not in order to “eradicate” the coronavirus, but in order to contain Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Under the cover of the danger, the fear and the anxiety, the person who lost the brakes long ago is plotting to eliminate the last vestiges of Israel’s democratic structure.

He takes frequent pride in his superior multitasking abilities, the mythic skills and the fantastic output (“What I do in an hour, others do in a year”) with which he is blessed. Those are the qualities with which he is managing the crisis with his right hand, even as his left is gripping the throat of the state.

Empty Tel Aviv from bird's-eye-viewCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

Thanks to his exalted capabilities, the man remains focused and in constant eye contact with the sole, supreme goal: escaping his trial. That’s what his prime-time evening appearances are all about, before an unprecedented, captive audience of some 60 percent of Israel’s television viewers.

Like a gifted pianist hitting the right notes, Netanyahu is playing a propaganda masterpiece aimed at imbuing the public with the feeling that he is totally indispensable. That “no one can top him,” as the singer Sarit Haddad has crooned in his praise. That way, when the coronavirus event ends, no one will even be able to imagine a reality in which anyone but him leads the country.

In the election he turned “the lemon into lemonade,” in his words. Now he’s trying to turn the virus into marmalade. At the podium of the Prime Minister’s Office, addressing the nation on television, he’s the daddy-of-us-all: concerned about our health, about our grandfathers and grandmothers, about the tissues in our pockets, about our social distance. Modesty is not his middle name: He heaps praise on himself ceaselessly (about how he’s just doing his job), and floats tall tales about how the world envies us. Next thing you know, he’ll ask us to make a burnt offering to him.

That’s the public, enlightened Netanyahu. In the murky shadows, he dispatches his agents on liquidation missions. The dangerous personage who is ensconced at the head of the Justice Ministry was sent to shut down the courts – just a day and a half before Netanyahu’s trial was set to open.

The judicial systems in other countries, in many of which the coronavirus situation is far worse than in Israel, are working on a reduced basis – along with the parliaments. Was it not possible to hold the prime minister’s hearing in the presence of 12 or 13 people (three judges, two law interns, four defendants, four lawyers), and seat them four – not two, not three – meters from each other in a large courtroom? Of course, it was.

People wave Israeli flags during a protest outside the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, March 19, 2020.Credit: Eyal Warshavsky,AP

That’s why the representatives of the “anyone but Bibi” bloc have to be in the government: to stop the deterioration of the democracy; to thwart middle-of-the-night opportunism; to kick Amir Ohana out of the Justice Ministry and replace him with someone worthy, who doesn’t embarrass the institution; and to rescue the education system from the cleric who’s running it today.

If only we could see Ayman Odeh or Ahmad Tibi from the Joint List at the government table, too. But Israel in 2020 is plagued with another virus, worse than corona – against which neither the prime minister or his government are waging any battle: the virus of racism, incitement and exclusion. On the contrary: That’s their insurance policy for the next election, the golden share whose value never decreases in the market, a vaccine that’s been tested.

Balance of forces

The Prime Minister’s Bureau was on red alert on Sunday, when representatives of the various parties elected to the Knesset arrived at the President’s Residence. The news that the Joint List and Yisrael Beiteinu had both recommended Benny Gantz as their candidate to form a government jolted Netanyahu. That’s it, he said to those around him; they’ve crossed the Rubicon. If that’s their recommendation, then they’ll form a government, too.

Netanyahu had no doubt, I have been told, that this is what was going to happen. That they would find a majority. That his two saviors, MKs Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, the Arab-hating twins from Kahol Lavan, would give in to the will of the party and enable Benny Gantz to become prime minister.

Netanyahu fought until the last minute to prevent Gantz from getting the nod from Rivlin. He tried to lure Labor’s Amir Peretz and Itzik Shmuli, to attract defectors from Kahol Lavan – and he didn’t skip the despised Arab MKs, either. His emissaries probed every possible weak spot, but came back empty-handed.

Beyond his basic paranoia, Netanyahu’s behavior in the political arena is in keeping with the well-known story of the Arabs of Lod and Ramle: During the War of Independence, when the Israeli army conquered those two cities, its top brass assembled the commanders of the Arab forces. Spare us, the defeated officers begged. Have no fear, the Israelis replied: We will do to you exactly what you would have done to us if the situation were reversed.

If Netanyahu were in Gantz’s position, he would form a government with the support of the Joint List without batting an eyelid – or, alternately, he’d go with Itamar Ben-Gvir, had his Otzma Yehudit party had won enough votes to enter the Knesset. When what’s at stake is staying on in the Balfour Street residence, there’s no time for being fussy. Also, if Bibi had two upstarts like Hendel and Hauser in his faction, he would know how to keep them in line.

The talks about a unity government, which are being held in secret this time around, took a practical turn only when Gantz sent a message to the other side to the effect that, in light of the health crisis in the country, he would be ready to break Kahol Lavan’s major election promise and serve under Netanyahu. He understood that at this time the public would not readily accept a change of government.

The division of ministerial portfolios has been settled, more or less. The foundation for that was established in the last round of negotiations, following the September election: The Justice Ministry would be taken from Ohana and given to a non-partisan jurist from the outside. Yuli Edelstein would forsake the post of Knesset Speaker in favor of MK Meir Cohen (Yesh Atid/Kahol Lavan) or be replaced by someone else from Likud: Yariv Levin or Yuval Steinitz.

Benny Gantz.Credit: NIR ELIAS/ REUTERS

Only one small matter remains to be determined: the date of the rotation between Netanyahu and Gantz as prime ministers. Netanyahu is demanding two years, Gantz is insisting on one year. They might meet in the middle.

Would joining a unity government under The Accused from Balfour Street necessarily lead to the dissolution of Kahol Lavan? Among those in the inner circle of the “former chief of staff,” as Rivlin usually calls Gantz, the hope is that the quadripartite cockpit will continue to fly the party’s fighter jet into the next government.

Likud harbors the opposite hope: that the center will not hold. We’d be better off with Gantz forming a minority government, with us going into the opposition for half a year, than having Moshe Ya’alon, who’s completely lost it, and Yair Lapid entering a government with us, a senior Likud figure said this week. With them there will just be trouble.

Opinion is divided among Netanyahu’s confidants. Some say the catastrophe is already here, the economy is going to implode, unemployment is going to explode, a recession is only a matter of weeks away. We need Kahol Lavan with us to share the burden, so the responsibility won’t fall only on our shoulders.

Others, though – like Likud MK Miki Zohar, and also apparently the other residents of Balfour Street – are pushing for a fourth election. There’s an opportunity here that won’t ever return, advocates of this approach argue: to crush Kahol Lavan over the Arab issue. The polls are predicting a shift of five-six seats from Kahol Lavan directly to Likud. But who knows when it would even be possible to hold an election, and whether the economic debacle won’t spark a change of government?

Return of the refusenik

Over the years, a few MKs have demonstrated an impressive ability to filibuster. A legitimate maneuver to take up time in a government, filibustering requires the capacity to improvise, a good set of vocal cords and a bladder of steel. This week another precedent was set in our frenzied democracy: The practitioner of this tactic was none other than the Knesset Speaker himself.

Yuli Edelstein, who was reelected to the post two Knessets ago – in April 2019 – has been barricading himself in his office, and clinging to far-fetched, outrageous excuses to justify his behavior. And to add national gravity to his personal disgrace, he is betraying his mission and the trust placed in him by lending a hand to the Balfour Street plot to paralyze the Knesset indefinitely. The aim is to postpone the election of a new parliamentary speaker (though this is ultimately inevitable), following which legislation is expected to be passed that would address the situation of a prime minister facing criminal charges running for the top spot.

The result is also a shutdown of essential parliamentary oversight over the government’s actions during the nation’s most grave economic and public-health crisis to date.

Netanyahu’s bulldozer emissaries are cabinet ministers Zeev Elkin and Yariv Levin, two close-mouthed, highly experienced hit men. The former is as clever as a desert fox; the latter as wily as an alley cat. They’re all over Edelstein, hemming him in, suffocating him. He could have risen to the seriousness of the occasion and acted differently – even if it were contrary to what his Likud boss’ base expects of him. Instead, the Speaker chose to shrink and cringe.

Edelstein gets checked as he entered the Knesset this week. Credit: Adina Wallman/Knesset Spokesman’s Office

There have been Knesset Speakers who, in a time of crisis, acted against their party’s wishes, against the parliamentary majority and against the prime minister. Some lost their job because of it. The most recent of them was elected president of Israel, precisely because of his statesman-like decisions.

Edelstein lacks even the humility of someone who is sitting in his chair today thanks only to a recently passed amendment, under which the incumbent Speaker continues in his post until a new one is elected.

Edelstein also brought opprobrium upon himself by promoting a “compromise proposal” for which the term “disgraceful” is too mild: His idea was to establish an Arrangements Committee (which manages the affairs of the House) on an egalitarian basis: half the members from Likud, half from Kahol Lavan. Would Edelstein have suggested that if it was the rightist-Haredi bloc that had 61 MKs?

On top of all this, the Speaker is following the directives of the Health Ministry like a technocrat, and in so doing also serving Elkin and Levin (i.e., Netanyahu), by limiting meetings of Knesset committees to 10 MKs. The Knesset, and its Speaker, have the sovereign right to decide otherwise.

The decision that has been made – to put off election of new Speaker, or convening the Knesset or its committees – is forcing an artificial stalemate on the parliament and spits in the face of the majority of the public, whose democratic representation is being thwarted. Why not hold meetings in which some of the participants are present via video conference, in the same way that meetings of ministers and directors general are beng held these days? Here another excuse is whipped out: Knesset regulations don’t allow that. But with one quick vote, that situation could have been changed.

Perhaps Edelstein is behaving this way is at the behest of the outgoing prime minister; perhaps these are his real views. Either way, the humiliation he is bringing on himself is incalculably greater than the indignities to which he was subjected at various times in the past by Netanyahu and by the prime minister’s wife and elder son. And when the self-degradation is accompanied by the trampling of the sacred ethos of the person chosen to preserve the honor and status of the legislature – we’ve really have hit rock bottom.

House and home

This week, Rabbi Yaakov Medan and legal scholar Ruth Gavison – co-authors of a 2003 “covenant” intended to regularize religious-secular relations, and bearing their names – paid a visit to Edelstein. You have to throw yourself under the wheels of the bus if it will advance the cause a unity government, Medan urged the Speaker.

In Edelstein’s biased eyes, that’s exactly what he’s doing. Lying under the bus. If I were to let them replace me, he explains in private conversations, a unity government would be kaput: Any prospects for one, which aren’t great to begin with, would fade the moment the Arrangements Committee was convened, and they began proceeding with legislation aimed at Netanyahu.

Edelstein might really believe that, but by the same token, the opposite can be argued: If the sword of legislation aimed at denying Netanyahu the legal possibility to govern were hanging over the premier, he would soften his stance and the government would be formed.

No less problematic is another argument Edelstein has put forward to justify his refusal to allow a vote on his successor. If Meir Cohen is elected, he says, then Yair Lapid, who is head of Cohen’s party and the fiercest opponent of cooperation with Netanyahu, will effectively take control of the Knesset and turn it into his personal weapon against the elusive unity government.

“Cohen is a good fellow, but he’s not capable of standing up to Lapid the way I stand up to Netanyahu,’ Edelstein insists.

In the light of all this, the feeling is that after seven years as Knesset Speaker, definitely a lengthy term, Edelstein has become a Netanyahu clone: not when it comes to personal corruption, heaven forbid, but in the difficulty he has of parting with a patrimony. The one is entrenching himself on Balfour Street (“My home is my castle,” the prime minister said during one of his recent TV broadcasts); the other in the House he represents.

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