The very future of Israeli democracy is at stake. That is what the upcoming elections are about.
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wishes not just to be reelected, but to ensure, above all and at all costs, that he does not go to jail. Both aspirations are understandable, only the first is legitimate.
The game plan is clear: reelection, appointment of a compliant attorney general who seeks to terminate the court proceedings due to the “absence of public interest” and then pressure on the judges to agree. They can refuse, but they and their families will be the subjects of vicious threats, including to their persons and legal careers, and of a frenzied right-wing public campaign.
Netanyahu has repeatedly demonstrated that he has no compunctions, moral or legal, when it comes to saving his own neck. The unbridled onslaught he has waged against Israel’s democratic and legal systems has already caused severe harm, and he is willing to bring the house down with him, should this prove necessary.
In the previous elections, he ensured that Itamar Ben-Gvir and Betzalel Smotrich, out and out racists, would be elected and part of the ruling coalition. This time, if elected, he will bring them into government. If necessary, and despite the loud, abusive denials of his camp, he will be willing to include the Islamist Ra’am party as well, as he was last time. Nothing can get in the way of the sacred mission of self-preservation.
This master of the politics of fear and hate, who cravenly contributed to the atmosphere in which Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, has continued to exploit the same methodology ever since. His declaration regarding the “Arab voters coming out in droves to the polls,” during the 2015 elections, is just the best-known example, and he has already begun sharpening the knives for the upcoming round. Under his leadership, the Likud has been taken over by boorish and vulgar extremists, such as Dudi Amsalem, Miri Regev, Amir Ohana, David Bitan, Shlomo Karai and Micky Zohar, all Netanyahu henchmen, for whom no low is ever too low.
Israeli democracy was lucky to dodge a bullet last year, with the establishment of the Bennett-Lapid government. Unfortunately, it lasted for only a year, but at least gave us a respite from the electoral and governmental madness that was overtaking Israel and the opportunity to experience responsible governance once again. Governance that puts the good of the people at the fore and seeks to address national challenges.
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It is so easy to forget where we were just a year ago, with the Haredi and Arab communities simply out of control, ignoring basic health and safety regulations with wild abandon. The Haredim experienced two mass casualty events in just weeks, with the horror of 45 people trampled to death at Mount Meron and a smaller tragedy in Givat Zeev. Violence in the Arab community was surging and unprecedented strife erupted between Jews and Arabs in Israel’s cities during the conflict in Gaza last May.
Moreover, the public was rapidly losing faith in the ability of the democratic system to function effectively and deliver. A long-standing sense of despair, especially in the center and center-left, was boiling over. Faith in the legal system, a jewel of Israeli society, was collapsing on the right. Violence and hatred were in the air and on the streets.
Israel was rapidly approaching a point of chaos and the specter of more widespread civil strife, even of a limited civil war, ceased to be unthinkable. Should Netanyahu be reelected, we may rapidly find ourselves back where we were, only much worse this time. The coalition that might bring him back to power would be composed of the most radical and darkest forces in Israel’s history.
The truly important issue is, of course, not Netanyahu, nor the future of any particular party, but how the elections affect national policy in critical areas. Regrettably, there is no good news.
Critical domestic issues have been postponed, or ruthlessly shunted aside for political benefit. Israel’s cyber sector, a critical part of its high-tech prowess, for whose success Netanyahu actually deserves considerable credit, has been hamstrung in recent years by an ongoing failure to pass a long-awaited Cyber Law. The recommendations of a special task-force in the field of artificial intelligence, critical to Israel’s success in the next big area of high-tech, remain in limbo.
Remarkably, the Netanyahu-led opposition defeated the Metro Law, designed to build a subway system throughout the center of the country and save Israeli drivers from the traffic jams that have become a threat to their sanity and a drag on growth, just for the sake of obstructionism. This unconscionable political cynicism was exceeded only by the opposition’s blocking of the heretofore automatic renewal of the regulations that apply Israeli law to Israeli citizens in the West Bank - a right wing priority - again for the sake of obstructionism. When the objective is political power at all costs, nothing is holy.
The renewal of nuclear negotiations with Iran is a further demonstration of the colossal failure of Netanyahu’s policy in regard to this foremost challenge in the area of national security. In 2018, prior to President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal, with Netanyahu’s strong urging, Iran was a year away from having sufficient fissile material for a first bomb. Today, Iran already has enough fissile material for a first bomb and for the next two within weeks, five bombs within half a year.
The Israeli right, which has always had difficulty differentiating between extant reality and that to which it aspires, failed to understand that economic sanctions, devoid of an overarching diplomatic strategy, were doomed to fail. In practice, they only served to push Iran into developing an autarchical “resistance economy” and further into the hands of China (and now Russia), thereby enabling it to weather the sanctions.
Moreover, with recurrent elections, Israel has been incapable of developing a coherent and comprehensive strategy for dealing with Iran and its long-term strategy for bringing about Israel’s demise. Crucial decisions have to be made, including on a possible military strike, but Israel is consumed by domestic politics.
The buildup of Hezbollah’s mammoth rocket arsenal continues apace, as does Iran’s military presence in Syria. Again, Israel cannot formulate a comprehensive strategy and has instead been waging an increasingly aggressive covert campaign against Iran, good in and of itself, but which is a substitution of tactics for strategy. It is also likely to become counterproductive, as the ongoing attacks force Iran to develop a response.
Iran’s increasingly sophisticated cyber capabilities, for example, were developed largely in response to U.S.-Israeli cyber attacks against it. And, of course, we can always count on Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, or some individual Palestinian terrorist, to do the wrong thing at the wrong time.
If the radical right regains office, the upcoming elections may be the ones that put an end to the already dim prospects for a two-state solution. You have probably heard it before, but even premature predictions have their day and the ability to separate the two peoples, already questionable, will not survive four more years of large-scale settlement activity. The very future of the Zionist enterprise, Israel’s character as a predominantly Jewish and vibrantly democratic state, is at stake.
Once again, the right wing allows ideology to befuddle its perception of reality. There is no status quo and a one-state reality is rapidly emerging, even though over 90 percent of Israel’s public objects to this outcome. Already today 40 percent of the combined populations of Israel and the West Bank are not Jewish, hardly a Jewish state.
President Joe Biden will get along with Prime Minister Yair Lapid even better than with his predecessor. Should Lapid, or someone else from the center, emerge as the next premier, the looming crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations may be forestalled, but there is not too much time left to address the growing differences between Israel and its foremost ally.
For decades, Israel has disregarded the positions of U.S. administrations, Democratic and Republican alike, and of a majority of American public opinion, on the West Bank issues. One can slowly poison a well for just so long, before it becomes toxic. At every stage en route everything seems to be okay, until all of a sudden it is not.
On the Democratic side there has been a significant drop in support for Israel in recent years and should Netanyahu be reelected, the situation will rapidly go from bad to much worse. In the 2020 presidential elections, three leading Democratic candidates linked support for U.S. military aid to Israel – heretofore the sacrosanct heart of the bilateral relationship – to a change in Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. We will see what happens in 2024. If there is one thing that Israel cannot afford, it is harm to the relationship with the U.S.
The period until the new government comes into office will be one of heightened peril, as will the period following a potential return of the radical right. The history of the Third Temple is being written now and things do not look good. Israel’s silent majority, from the center-left to the center-right, must continue to band together to ensure the nation’s future. Part of that is ensuring that Netanyahu is not reelected.
Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, is author of “Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change” and the forthcoming “Israel and the Cyber Threat: How the Startup Nation Became a Global Superpower.” Twitter: @chuck_freilich