A Civil War Is Raging in Israel. Now the State Must Rebuild From the Ruins

Demonstrators at a rally supporting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Tel Aviv, November 26, 2019.
Jack Guez / AFP

A civil war is raging in Israel. It’s not like the one in Iraq or the one that tore Lebanon apart for 15 years. There’s no bloodshed here yet, but the war is going on in cyberspace, and with blows exchanged in Tel Aviv squares as the sides threaten to bring millions onto the streets.

Meanwhile, the state is being run by a frightened caretaker government, with the tribes as mentioned by President Reuven Rivlin deteriorating into political militias. Feelings of distrust, frustration and despair are creating the base that stokes outbursts from the public.

Ostensibly, this is a battle over Benjamin Netanyahu’s fate, but actually it’s a struggle over the overall system. The prime minister’s opponents portray his remaining in power as a crime against democracy, an insult to morality, integrity and the foundations of proper governance. His supporters latch onto the law that lets a prime minister continue to serve under an indictment.

The law, after all, is the basis for the alliance between government and the citizens. For Netanyahu’s supporters, anyone who questions the legitimacy of his rule is akin to someone negating the rule of law itself. This is how the demand to remove Netanyahu has turned from a personal matter into an ideological campaign waged around the status of the rule of law in a democratic Israel. It has become a polemic on the character of society.

Should Robin Hood be prosecuted for allegedly accepting gifts and bribes worth hundreds of thousands of shekels from wealthy people around the world while giving the weaker segments of society  – the “Second Israel,” the “riff-raff”  – status and power? Or should he be viewed as a deplorable highway robber?

To his followers there’s no doubt: “The rule of law is not above the law,” as Culture Minister Miri Regev put it. We can scoff at her ignorance, but she faithfully represents a dilemma: letting Netanyahu stay in power while bringing him to justice. How do we resolve this contradiction?

“Only the citizens of this country will determine who leads this country,” Regev declared. “Only you are sovereign. Your voice cannot be ignored. Your voice is the final verdict.”

The law is just a bunch of words and letters, the will of the people is the real law and the city square is the court for handing down the verdict on the prime minister. For Netanyahu’s followers, obeying a written law isn’t only a political surrender, it’s a class defeat, an end of history and a return to rule by a mafia that wrote the warped laws in the first place, not seeing that it now faces a revered and exceptional leader.

Some people are calling on Likud members to wean themselves off Bibi, while others are saying we shouldn’t be beheading him after a public trial. We should allow the court – the same court that’s the subject of the overall dispute – to decide his fate, maybe letting him finish his term because time is limited until his trial begins. This is commendable generosity that only someone who’s certain of victory can allow himself – “the enemy is vanquished; our law has defeated their law.”

But without referring to the damage Netanyahu can still inflict in a term lasting only a few months, and without considering the threat of granting him immunity that hasn’t completely passed, we should note that extending his tenure could lead to further extensions until the final post-appeal ruling is reached. His immediate removal is essential if we want to start taking down the barricades, rebuilding from the ruins and returning the rebuilt house to its rightful owners.

The attorney general can no longer hide within the narrow confines of the law when he rules on whether Netanyahu can form a government, after he so meticulously drew up the charges against the prime minister. It’s not Netanyahu that Likud and the public must be weaned off. They must be weaned off the link Netanyahu created between his leadership and a detestation of the law.

His immediate removal from the political stage isn’t the revenge of one tribe against another. It’s the restoration of the debate on values and ideology to its rightful place, after it was tossed out when Netanyahu turned the debate into a debate on one person.