In democratic countries – especially those like Israel and the U.S., in which two diametrically opposed ideologies stand one against the other – elections are always pivotal and always fateful. The decision made by the voters inevitably changes the course of history. The election campaign brings them to a T-junction and they must decide whether to turn right or left. In a democracy, even the smallest of majorities can lead to momentous change.
It goes without saying that America and the world would be in a totally different place today if Hillary Clinton had been elected instead of Donald Trump in 2016, but the same is true – albeit to a less terrifying degree – if Mitt Romney or John McCain had beaten Barack Obama and certainly if John Kerry or Al Gore had triumphed over George W. Bush.
Haaretz Weekly podcast, Episode 9
By the same token, it’s hard to even imagine what Israel would be like today if Yitzhak Shamir had won against Yitzhak Rabin in 1992, Shimon Peres had edged out Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996, Tzipi Livni hadn’t squandered her chance to form a coalition in 2009 or if it was Isaac Herzog, and not Netanyahu, who had ridden a late minute surge to the top.
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But even against the backdrop of pivotal turns, the upcoming Israeli election on April 9 stands out. In some ways, it could be the most fateful of all. Not because of the security situation, relations with the U.S., the peace process, the cost of living, or the collapse of public services such as health and transportation and more, although all these issues are critical to Israel’s well being and will undoubtedly be effected by the election's outcome. The election is also more than a personal referendum on Netanyahu, although it will be widely described as such, notwithstanding the astonishing fact that victory will give the prime minister his fourth consecutive term and tenth consecutive year in office.
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The decisive difference that will turn the election into a watershed event stems from Netanyahu’s last tenure, which strayed from its predecessors in two crucial ways, ideological as well as personal. It is the volatile mix between the two that changes the approaching vote from a choice between rival ways into a game of all or nothing, from a contest between two opposing ideologies into a total war of the worlds in which defeat could spell demise. For Israel’s struggling liberal democracy, already demoralized and undermined by the coalition's relentless assault, it could be the last hurrah.
Over the past four years, Netanyahu has led a religious-Zionist-right-wing camp, extreme by Western standards, which no longer hides its intention of defying democracy and degrading its constitutional safeguards. It’s no coincidence that the prestigious V-Dem institute in Sweden decided to downgrade Israel’s status from a liberal to an electoral democracy, one in which the right to vote is preserved, but not the commitment to equality, minority rights, freedom of speech or the rule of law. It's no coincidence either that Netanyahu has embraced world leaders – from Hungary and Poland to the U.S. and now Brazil – who share his authoritarian, ethnocentric and anti-liberal views.
Netanyahu’s legal embroilments are seemingly unconnected to his right-wing ideology, but his scorched earth campaign against police investigators, state attorneys and soon possibly courtroom judges, too, will now serve as a battering ram in the final rightist assault on the crumbling walls of Israel’s democracy. The cry “he is innocent,” last uttered two decades ago by disciples of the subsequently convicted Shas leader Arye Dery, is a direct challenge to the rule of law. One way or another, it will dominate the upcoming election campaign, whether or not Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit deigns to tell the public whether their prime minister is to be accused of bribery and corruption.
Under such circumstances, the victory that all the polls and all the experts say is Netanyahu’s for the taking will be so much more than a personal and political triumph. It will give Netanyahu and his partners a license to kill – with due democratic consent – whatever remains of Israel’s liberal values. Israel will be transformed for the worse, and perhaps forever.