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Forget Coronavirus. In Israel, the Democracy Virus Will Be Defeated

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An Israeli man wearing a mask against coronavirus holds his national flag and a black flag during a protest outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 23, 2020.
An Israeli man wearing a mask against coronavirus holds his national flag and a black flag during a protest outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 23, 2020. Credit: Menahem KAHANA / AFP

“They’re stealing democracy from us,” the demonstrators protesting via their computer screens charged.

The real theft of democracy, the prime minister’s defenders retort, is in the Knesset’s work by delivering an ultimatum to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. This intervention will “undermine the status of the High Court and the legal system,” Edelstein said, pulling out the ultimate argument, the doomsday weapons that nobody can stand up against.

In other words, , we must not obey its orders and instructions. After all, we have to save it from itself, because without it, we won’t have any democracy left.

This rhetorical stunt works well at a time when the state is operating under emergency directives; the Knesset doesn’t exist; supervision of the government is a dead letter; senior bureaucrats are dictating our way of life; the most critical system of all, the health system, is headed by an ayatollah; and this entire orchestra is being conducted by a criminal defendant busy digging escape tunnels for himself.

Facing off against all these are tense, frightened citizens who are being terrified by every passerby on the sidewalk, hundreds of thousands of unemployed people who don’t know how to make ends meet . All of them are trying to cling to some kind of illusion that the leadership knows what it’s doing and obedience is worth the price of democracy.

Their assumption, or hope, is that once the pandemic ends, life will return to normal. Whatever was broken will be fixed, and the court will resume its status as a shining light.

In properly run countries, the foundations of culture, morality and justice on which societies are built can be relied on to do their work once the emergency is over. But in Israel, these foundations had been pulverized by heavy machinery before anyone had even heard of the coronavirus.

The High Court’s status wasn’t undermined today or three months ago. It wasn’t even necessary to use the D9 bulldozer famously advocated by MK Moti Yogev, who termed our highest legal institution a terrorist collaborator, to destroy public trust in it.

The hatred, incitement, racism and contempt for the law, like the prime minister’s corruption, aren’t side effects of the coronavirus. They certainly weren’t alleviated by it, and they’ll continue to exist after it’s gone.

Granted, the French, Italians, Spanish and Americans also don’t necessarily trust their leaders at this moment. Anyone following the discussions on social media or on television in those countries can discern the same anxiety and the same doubts about the government’s conduct.

The difference between them and Israelis is the degree of faith the former can still maintain in their system of government and the foundations of their culture. This ensures that their counties will resume upholding the social contracts that existed before the pandemic.

Israelis who want to go easy on themselves might argue that the United States is also led by a president who’s a liar, a narcissist and full of himself, one who hasn’t the faintest idea what the coronavirus is or what he ought to decide. But the United States has a Congress and a Supreme Court that can set boundaries, impose policies and preserve the substance of American democracy even during emergencies.

In Israel, these checks and balances don’t exist. The prime minister is behaving like an engine that has disconnected itself from the train and is racing down the slope completely out of control, with no High Court and .

This unbridled behavior won’t end even if the Holy Spirit descends on Edelstein and he decides to convene the plenum to elect a new speaker. Ostensibly, that would pave the path for enacting legislation that would prevent Benjamin Netanyahu from forming the next government. Ostensibly, “democracy” would have racked up a victory, thanks to the High Court. But no functioning government will emerge from this.

In the best case, the defendant won’t continue heading the government. But the stench he will leave behind him won’t go away. He’s already made sure that Israeli democracy will be treated like the coronavirus – a plague from which we must keep our distance. At least victims of Stockholm syndrome, who fall in love with their kidnappers, will be able to take comfort in this legacy.

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