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After Netanyahu's Reelection, the Challenge Ahead Will Be No Picnic

Ehud Barak
Ehud Barak
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at Likud headquarters, Ramat gan, March 4, 2019.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at Likud headquarters, Ramat gan, March 4, 2019.Credit: AFP
Ehud Barak
Ehud Barak

Only a truly stirring, positive vision coupled with determination will ultimately overcome the unholy alliance of the corrupt and the messianic striving to establish a Jewish apartheid state here.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 22

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So what did we get this week? A personal victory for Benjamin Netanyahu, first of all. Barring any surprises, he will again be tasked with forming the government, and for the first time after 23 years in politics, he will do so backed by a party of 35 MKs. As far as the blocs go, the change was minimal, with the number of rival MKs from the three center-left Jewish opposition parties having risen from 40 to 45. Not much of an achievement for Netanyahu there. The second big story is Benny Gantz’s unprecedented accomplishment – in much less than 23 weeks, not years, he went from having zero political experience to being a genuine contender, one who came tantalizingly close to victory with a party that won 35 Knesset seats.

>> Netanyahu's next coalition: Annexation for immunity from indictment | Analysis ■ Yes, Netanyahu won. And no, Israel's democracy didn't just die | Opinion

Granted, the ultimate goal of replacing the government was not attained, but despite plenty of missteps – including a failure to grasp the crucial importance of bloc size, leading to an insufficiently broad “merging of forces,” and a campaign that lacked a killer instinct as well as the kind of technical infrastructure needed to win in the social media age – the “camp for change” led by Gantz and Co. still notched quite an impressive achievement. This camp is still searching for the most effective way (hint: stronger, lower, coarser, as much as it takes to win, but within the framework of the law) to contend with Netanyahu’s campaign skills. Yet every defeat can be a good starting point for correction and change. And Gantz’s achievement in this election certainly provides all that is needed to immediately launch a new quest to restore sanity, statesmanship and integrity from the fringes to center-stage.

The masks will be off in Israel’s next government. It will clearly be a more extreme government than its predecessor, with its leader less restrained than ever before and with the likes of Bezalel Smotrich and members of Otzma Yehudit filling positions like justice minister and sitting on the judicial selection committee. The acute test of our already weakened democracy’s fortitude will come at the earliest possible stage. Netanyahu and his partners will immediately launch an assault by introducing bills immunizing the prime minister from prosecution (or some similar ploy) that include a special “override clause” that would block High Court intervention.

This two-pronged move, which may sound merely technical, would amount to a donkey’s burial of the principle of equality before the law and an irreversible neutering of the Supreme Court. We shall all be cloaked in shame if we fail to stop this from happening. If it goes through, we will end up like Poland and Hungary, i.e., a nominal democracy that is really an Erdogan-esque autocracy. As the assault continues, Israel will lose its character, the gatekeepers of law enforcement will be trampled, the free press will either be bought or learn to bend to the authorities’ will, and the basic values of the Israel Defense Forces, along with its leaders’ moral authority, will be severely eroded.

Dissemination of lies, incitement, sowing hatred, hacking phones, installing hidden cameras, wiretapping, slandering opponents and threatening senior officials will continue to be common tactics in Netanyahu’s orbit. We are facing an unholy alliance between Netanyahu and his corrupt cohorts who seek to smash the state’s legal system to save themselves from facing justice, and radical zealots who seek to smash that same system to enable the fulfillment of their vision of “Jewish apartheid.” We cannot let this happen.

Some people close to the prime minister are insisting that the presentation of the Trump peace plan will bring positive change. That Netanyahu, having secured immunity from prosecution and understanding that Israel has no choice but to respond, “yes, but…” to the Trump proposal, will be compelled to part with some of his extremist partners and thus take the preemptive move of adding one component of Kahol Lavan to his government, thereby inching towards the center and possibly shielding himself from criticism to boot.

But we already know that Netanyahu is incapable of making reality-altering decisions. He is all about “sound and fury signifying nothing” to avoid making any substantial decision. But back to the heart of the matter. Netanyahu’s repeat election victory is once again causing the public and press to marvel at his virtuosic, “magical” political skills. I beg to differ here. Netanyahu is without question a very talented and experienced politician, a clever and polished campaigner who is always ready to go as low as necessary to win. But a “magician,” in the sense of someone with supernatural powers, he is not.

Skillful at deception – definitely. When I challenged him 20 years ago, the same legend of the “magician” was being repeated. I was already quite familiar with it and told my people: He’s no magician. Whatever he is doing we just need to do it better, stronger and sooner. And we won. Yes, the conditions today are different, and the man has learned from experience and upped his game, but the basic principle remains. There’s no “magic” here. Just a tremendous will to win. We have to be even more determined.

Second, Netanyahu’s fans, and political analysts too at times, get caught up in the notion that the result, i.e., the election victory, “proves” that Netanyahu’s arguments are justified. Fact: The voters gave him their support. The people have spoken, and who are you, Mr. Attorney General, to impugn him or have him prosecuted?

This is a completely baseless contention. The idea that a leader or conjurer can, by means of his discourse with the public, define the boundaries of the law and the extent to which it must be heeded is ludicrous. A thief cannot serve as finance minister and someone who takes a bribe cannot serve as prime minister – and only a court can rule on such matters. It is not up to a majority or minority. These are the common pillars upon which every modern society stands. Negating them by means of a vote undercuts the foundation of a progressive society.

In any other developed country, someone whom the state seeks to indict (pending a hearing) in three cases of bribery, fraud and breach of trust could not run for prime minister – and this is in addition to the submarine case that demands investigation, as well as the affair of the $4 million worth of stock, the quarterly cash transfers from the cousin (what was President Ezer Weizman ousted over, and what’s the difference here?) and the years of false reporting to the state comptroller. This is not a matter of voter opinion. This is a matter of law enforcement and equality before the law. The responsibility placed on Avichai Mendelblit is enormous. Even so, the delay with which investigations are begun is puzzling and troubling. Once the state comptroller has raised an issue, there is nothing to discuss before an investigation is conducted and the facts are brought to light.

I’ll conclude with a more general comment about the Netanyahu phenomenon. Israelis see it as unique and without precedent. But history is filled with precedents of nations, often in times of hardship and frustration, that fell under the spell of a populist demagogue, of a narcissistic, not always stable and frequently corrupt personality – until they hit the wall and went through a painful national awakening, often coupled with disaster. Given the dangers posed by the fifth Netanyahu government, the “camp for change” needs solid leadership that transcends parties, that won’t take Netanyahu’s bait, and has a coordinated plan of action for a lengthy, relentless battle. It also requires a positive vision, one more stirring than the messianic-racist vision being promulgated by the Kahanists, hilltop youth and disciples of rabbis like Dov Lior and Yitzchak Ginsburgh, all of whom have become the tail wagging the dog. A Jewish and democratic Zionist vision, in the spirit of enlightenment and equality before the law expressed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. A vision of self-confidence and healthy national pride, that requires everyone to pitch in, so that we may put a stop to the downward slide we’re on and begin the quest for the triumph of the Zionist vision over those who distort it.

This will absolutely be a hard-fought battle and no mere discussion group or massage workshop. But if we want it badly enough – we will win.

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