Opinion

With Netanyahu Victory, It's Time We Admit: Israel Has Become a Dictatorship

It was the election itself that provided the surest proof that Israel under Netanyahu's leadership has transitioned to dictatorship

Likud activist carrying a placard featuring Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Modi'in, Israel, April 8, 2019.
\ Gil Cohen-Magen

If Benjamin Netanyahu manages to bribe his way to a ramshackle, immunity-from-prosecution coalition after his borderline showing in Tuesday's election, we will all know one thing for sure: Israel has become a dictatorship.

You need look no further than his Election Day obscenities of voter fraud and voter suppression.

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First to come to light was the operation in which Netanyahu's Likud planted 1,200 hidden cameras in polling stations in Arab areas of Israel.

Only in Arab areas.

A Netanyahu classic. A totalitarian stroke of genius:

Win Number 1: Soon after the polls open, the cameras are easily discovered, leading to national news bulletins, and focusing attention on the Likud's role, thus burnishing Netanyahu's standing among Arab-hating extreme right voters.

Win Number 2: The revelations of the hidden cameras deter Israeli Arabs from coming to the polling stations, further depressing an already low voter turnout and placing Arab parties in danger of elimination from the Knesset.

Win Number 3: Analysts note that a low Arab turnout could mathematically help far-right parties clear the vote minimum, entering the Knesset and thus helping form a new Netanyahu government.  

Win Number 4: Netanyahu publicly — and with a straight face — defends the use of the hidden cameras as a means of ensuring a "kosher" election process. This breathes new life into news reports, further deterring Arab voters.

>> Read more: Netanyahu and Gantz both claim victory, but numbers favor right-wing coalition | Live updates ■ If Netanyahu really lost, he will have no one to blame but himself | Analysis ■ 12 takeaways from Israel's looniest election that Netanyahu just won. Or is it Gantz? | Chemi Shalev ■ Netanyahu's incitement against Arabs in 2015 proved a big success in Israel's 2019 election | Noa Landau

But why stop there? In polling stations in Rishon Letzion, widely seen as a stronghold for Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan party, far and away Netanyahu's chief rival, voters planning on voting for Gantz were shocked to find that all of the ballot slips bearing the Kahol Lavan symbol were missing from the polling booths and unavailable to voters.

In other areas, Kahol Lavan ballot slips in the polling booths had been written on in writing small enough to be undetected by unsuspecting voters, but clear enough to be grounds for disqualifying the slips.  

But it was the election itself that provided the surest proof that Israel under his leadership has transitioned to dictatorship — the emergence of the equation under which Netanyahu hopes to trade annexation of West Bank settlements in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

The list is endless, from exploiting the return of a fallen soldier's remains for political advantage to hosting the Brazilian president — who stated, after a visit to Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, that Nazism was a leftist movement.

In the main, the campaign was marked by a monopolization and manipulation of media. Under the pressure of Netanyahu's charges of bias and with the past knowledge that the prime minister could bring further harm to careers and media outlets, the media pushed back only meekly against a cascade of lies directed at Gantz.

Not only were the full resources of Sheldon Adelson pressed to the max — the preelection Friday edition of the billionaire's Israel Hayom newspaper featured no fewer than 25 adoring photographs of the prime minister — but Netanyahu was everywhere, all the time, radio and television, wall to wall.

At every turn, Netanyahu transgressed the rulings and regulations of the government elections oversight board and received not so much as a single slap on the wrist.

As the campaign regressed into the realm of the scarcely believable, Netanyahu defended unilateral decisions regarding what is arguably Israel's most important single strategic weapon, its submarine fleet — decisions which circumvented and often contradicted his most senior defense officials.

It became clearer and clearer as the campaign ground on that anyone who opposed him and his Likud, anyone who questioned his policies, had earned the worst four-letter expletive in the Hebrew language: "Smol", Left, and thus sub-Israeli, enemies of the people and of the state.

The subtext was clear: Netanyahu himself had become the state.

On and on, the tools of the dictator became Netanyahu's weapons of choice: In particular the diametric lie, that is, accusing the opposition of what the Likud did as a matter of course — for example, falsely accusing his opponents of branding him a traitor.

Polls showed that large numbers of Israelis believed the Likud campaign's lies and bogus accusations, among them the charge that Gantz's wife was a radical leftist, that Gantz — who had served as Netanyahu's army chief of staff — had attended a memorial ceremony for a Hamas terrorist, that Gantz was a sex offender, deviant, a mental patient and a traitor, ready and willing to help Israeli Arab politicians exterminate Israel.

Perhaps most telling, though, was the prime minister's performance on his most congenial of home turfs: The slavishly pro-Netanyahu television talk show anchored by Sharon Gal and Ran Rahav.

Question: How many terms would you like? 

"As many as I want, and as many as I can serve," Netanyahu replied, adding, half in jest, half not: "If I can, another 20 times. Twenty-five times."

Only once did Netanyahu seem stumped. It was when Rahav asked him what he replied to critics who said that Israel's democracy was in danger, first and foremost because of attacks by Netanyahu and his allies on the Supreme Court and other basic institutions of governance.

After a pause, Netanyahu's answer was this:

“I — uh — think that the danger is far greater danger if Gantz and Lapid will be in charge — and it’s Gantz and Lapid. Lapid is supposed to be prime minister. Maybe they’ll drop him at the last minute, as a trick. But Lapid is the one running things. Lapid will be prime minister here. Will Lapid stand up to Iran? Will Lapid sit beside Putin? Or opposite Trump? It’s a joke," Netanyahu said, seeming, for a moment, to channel his friend Donald Trump.

“But democracy?" he said at last. "It’s safe.”

Netanyahu casts his vote in Israel's election, Jerusalem, April 9, 2019.
Emil Salman