Analysis

Crazy Israel Concurrently Convulsed by Coronavirus Crisis, Netanyahu Putsch and Gantz’s Come-from-nowhere Triumph

A constitutional crisis, wacko politics and a fateful battle for Israeli democracy – and that’s just the past 24 hours

President Reuven Rivlin and Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz bump elbows as not to touch after meeting with Netanyahu at the president's residence, March 15, 2020.
Kobi Gideon / GPO

Very few people on the face of the earth will dispute the assertion that these are crazy times we’re living in. In terms of the potential threat to the “global village,” as visionary Marshall McLuhan foresaw in our interconnected world, the coronavirus crisis is unprecedented. Like many countries around the world, Israel is grinding to a halt; its citizens gripped by a primal fear of the pestilence.

Jews, however, are the Chosen People, although this is another one of those occasions when Tevye’s complaint to God in Fiddler of the Roof is especially pertinent: “Couldn’t you choose another people for a change?”

Israel's coronavirus crisis could be Bibi's swan song. Haaretz weekly podcast

History will record that when the world went loony, Israel double whammied. Struggling like everyone else to meet the enormous medical, economic and social challenges of the corona pandemic simply wasn’t enough. As it tries to contain COVID-19, Israel is concurrently in constitutional convulsions, coming to grips with a wacko turn in politics in what is taking shape as a fateful battle over the future of its democracy. Beat that for exquisite timing.

>> Follow Haaretz's live coverage of events as Israel deals with the coronavirus outbreak in a time of political uncertainty

It’s worthwhile to shortly recap the hitherto inconceivable developments of the past 24 hours alone:

Saturday night, 9:00 P.M. Netanyahu addresses the nation, announces new coronavirus restrictions, calls for national unity in this time of crisis and nonchalantly announces that the Shin Bet’s formidable surveillance apparatus, ostensibly reserved for counterterrorism operations, would henceforth be employed to expose virus carriers who have failed to give proper account of their comings and goings. 

Sunday, pre-dawn, 1:00 A.M. Sixty hours before his trial was set to start in the Jerusalem District Court, Netanyahu’s proxy and interim Justice Minister Amir Ohana carries out what is essentially a legal putsch, ordering an emergency shutdown of the court system. This is despite the Health Ministry’s advice to the contrary. Four hours after calling for unity, Netanyahu usurps the rule of law, thus spitting in the faces of his prospective partners in an emergency government and, by extension, more than half of Israeli voters.

Sunday morning, 8:00 A.M. Unity is dead in the water as Gantz tells Netanyahu “When you get serious, we can talk.” Ohana’s dictatorial decree and Netanyahu’s eagerness, since tempered, to use the Shin Bet against common Israelis alarm elites and spur howls of protest in the center-left opposition.

12:00 P.M. The Joint List shocks Israeli politicians by telling President Rivlin that their entire list, including the ultra-nationalist Balad Party – seen by many Israelis as an enemy organization –  are recommending that Gantz gets first crack at forming a new government. In Palestinian terms, this is more or less like Ilhan Omar endorsing U.S. President Donald Trump or white supremacists embracing Barack Obama. Moreover, the unprecedented move set up the possibility of Gantz garnering, 61 recommendations, compelling Rivlin to pick him to form a new government.

4:45 P.M. Wonders not only never cease, they go up a notch or two. Avigdor Lieberman, the unrivalled bogeyman of Israeli Arabs and a racist rabble-rouser in the eyes of many on the center-left, joins hands with Balad in endorsing Gantz, giving him the coveted 61 MK threshold. So – crazy is as crazy does – elections that were heralded two weeks ago as an unparalleled victory for Netanyahu end up with his rival taking first place.

Sunday evening, 6:00 P.M. On the eve of the inauguration and swearing in of the new Knesset, its outgoing speaker Yuli Edelstein expands what is emerging as an attempted coup d’état. In perfect Orwellian, he announces that he will prevent the new Knesset from choosing a new speaker, as law and tradition prescribe. He says this is so as not to impede efforts to reach agreement on a national unity government – which he, by his own actions, seriously undermined.

The true reason for Edelstein’s defiance, however, is that the same 61 MKs who recommended Gantz to Rivlin are also planning to choose a new speaker from their rank and set up the appropriate parliamentary committees. Also, in another unique and unprecedented development, they plan to serve as a check and balance to Netanyahu’s naked power grab, aggravated by the fact that he is an interim prime minister with supposedly far less authority than one who has been voted in by the Knesset. 

In parliamentary politics, the Knesset is usually a rubber stamp for the ruling coalition. In this topsy-turvy time, it seeks to emulate the U.S. House of Representative and to put the brakes on Netanyahu’s undisguised and ongoing campaign to escape justice.

Sunday night 9:00 P.M. Rivlin returns to the scene of his last failure by trying to broker an agreement between Gantz and Netanyahu over the formation of a new government, sparking an outcry on the center-left. Should he fail, as expected, Rivlin has already announced that he would pick Gantz to form the next government first thing on Monday. 

That’s what the law, logic and tradition dictate, though, after a whole year of Netanyahu’s jail-breaking shenanigans, all three seem to be in dire need of an artificial respirator. For all we know, Netanyahu could declare martial law at any given moment, armed police could surround the Knesset to prevent its members from exercising their sovereign rights and the Shin Bet could announce that all leftists are hereby redefined as suspect coronavirus carriers, whose moves need to be traced and monitored.

Nah, that can’t happen here, you might say. But that was true of the events of the past 24 hours as well. In fact, with their world knocked out of joint and fear in their hearts, many Israelis are now convinced that literally anything can happen. Once you let the genie out of the bottle, he’d be crazy to voluntarily go back in.