At the end of summer 2020, Israeli democracy died in broad daylight. After hospitals reported that coronavirus wings were filled to capacity and demonstrations by the unemployed and newly-impoverished turned violent, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the new emergency powers legislated overnight by the Knesset to announce a full curfew, a “temporary” ban on protests and postponement of all criminal trials – mainly his – until further notice.
The next day, in a special address to the nation, Netanyahu asserted that he’d received “incontrovertible proof” of a sinister “international conspiracy” to overthrow his government. The plot, he said, included “enemy agents, antisemitic European-funded NGOs, senior law enforcement officials and, it goes without saying, the treacherous Israeli media.”
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Netanyahu announced the activation of the Defense (Emergency) Regulations enacted by British Mandatory authorities and preserved in Israel’s legal codex, in order to suppress the “anti-Zionist putsch” with an iron fist. He declared expanded censorship, proclaimed left-leaning NGOs to be “illegal organizations” and ordered the immediate arrest of “ringleaders,” who would be brought to quick trial before the special military tribunals set up in accordance with the emergency regulations.
Social media erupted in outraged protest, which remained virtual, however, because of the curfew. Petitions to the High Court of Justice were rejected outright in light of the “nullification clause” inserted at the last minute in the “Special Powers to Fight the Coronavirus Law,” which deprived the court of jurisdiction to review its contents.
Benny Gantz, the “alternate prime minister,” tweeted that Netanyahu’s moves had created a “grave coalition crisis,” but soon relented after Netanyahu pledged to consult him and to “act with restraint”. It later emerged that Netanyahu and his Likud party had enticed three members of Gantz’s Kahol Lavan to bolt the party if and when the government fell, and to join a narrow right-wing coalition that would be “double the trouble,” as Gantz explained.
Allegations that Netanyahu had deliberately allowed the coronavirus pandemic to spin out of control remained uncorroborated, but there was no denying that the ensuing public hysteria served his purposes. A similar debate broke out on Facebook about Netanyahu’s inexplicable indifference to rising social unrest and escalating public protests. His refusal to address reports that Likud activists had pushed protest organizers to escalate the violence while promising to cover their costs only added to widespread suspicions about Netanyahu’s recent conduct.
Politicians and pundits admitted they hadn’t taken Netanyahu seriously enough when he railed against what he described as “The Plot Against Israel” that sought to topple him “outside the ballot box.” A senior Likud minister said he had no idea that Netanyahu’s fulminations were anything more than an “act” aimed at inciting public opinion against the illusory “legal witch hunt” he claims is being waged against him.
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“His own gimmick turned Netanyahu into a true believer,” the minister added. But he was forced to act before Donald Trump left office, he rationalized, minutes before entering the Knesset auditorium to vote in favor of further legislation granting the prime minister even more draconian emergency powers.
Media outlets were divided. Most of the news outlets, including the recently tamed Channel 13, described Netanyahu’s moves as necessary and temporary measures crucial to ensuring public safety and to defending Israel “from its enemies without and within.” Ratings-rich Channel 12 remained neutral, allowing in-house commentators to decry the blow to democracy but giving equal time to guests who echoed Netanyahu’s claim that “a warped democracy is an existential danger to Israel’s future wellbeing.” Haaretz was adamant in opposition, up until total censorship was imposed and its editors were detained for questioning, along with well-known social media personalities suspected of sedition.
The Israeli public– imprisoned at home, terrified of the resurgent coronavirus, appalled by escalating violence in central cities, diverted by increasing tensions with Iran and numb after two straight years of Netanyahu’s endless political and personal melodramas– couldn’t be bothered.
We fell asleep on our watch, most members of Knesset confessed. Netanyahu had laid his guns on the table in the first act for all to see, and then picked them up and shot democracy in the heart in the third act, they admitted, but no one could have imagined that things would ever come to this.