There’s a good reason for that stomach-churning feeling that you have: Benjamin Netanyahu has no intention of passing the baton. After all, that was one of the reasons Benny Gantz didn’t sign a rotation deal with him after the September election: the understanding that the prime minister did not intend to honor such an agreement. He won’t leave his official residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem. Not after a coalition agreement, not after losing three straight elections in which he failed to win the 61 Knesset seats needed for a majority and not after being indicted for offenses that include bribery.
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Will he do a handover during his trial? Will he do a handover if convicted? It’s scary to admit it, but the answer is probably not. About half of all Israelis, and a large majority of Israeli Jews (whose votes are the only ones that count in the political arena), have stopped recognizing the supremacy of the rule of law, express distrust in the legal system and can be expected to resist using force in the event Netanyahu is sent to prison and removed from power. There’s no longer agreement in Israel about the meaning of the concept of democracy. According to the pro-Bibi camp, the indictment against Netanyahu is not “democratic.” They replaced the paradigm. There are no longer mutually agreed rules for resolving differences, no accepted procedures for ending political disputes. It’s anarchy.
We could hold a fourth election, but what would be the point? When it’s clear that Netanyahu has no intention of ceding power, then there isn’t any. The evidence is that he keeps losing at the ballot box, and he refuses to cede power. As long as Kahol Lavan insists on what it calls a “Jewish majority,” there will be no recognition that the existing stable majority against Netanyahu has the right to take the reins of power away from him in a democratic manner. And while it should be unnecessary, we must be ready for the possibility that Israel is rolling toward a fourth election. Out of inertia.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s trial will begin. Since around half of the nation doesn’t plan to recognize the outcome, the trial will only exacerbate the divisions. Such disputes between two halves of a nation, over the critical matter of the structure of government have led to civil wars. And President Reuven Rivlin mumbles clichés about reconciliation.
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Over the part year, the anti-Netanyahu’s camp believed he was panicking. They should panic. Now is the time. Not because they lost the election (they didn’t), but because this country has stopped speaking in one language. The concepts of democracy, the rule of law and election victory have different meanings to each camp. Israeli society barely managed to contain the divisions after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, and that only because all of the sides continued to agree on the structure of government and to respect it. This agreement was lost over the past year.
When Netanyahu refuses to go to prison or manages to prevent prosecution through legislation – and in any event maintains his refusal to hand over power – what will the civil war look like? Perhaps citizens won’t take to streets with guns. But anywhere there is a deadlock, half the public will feel justified in imposing their opinion on the other side by force. That can be expected to be the ultimate fracture, since it leaves no room for compromise. There are matters of principle about which there can be no compromise.
Abraham Lincoln didn’t compromise about slavery, and Gantz (not to equate them) won’t compromise about not joining a government whose prime minister has been charged with bribery, and the pro-Bibi camp won’t compromise over their belief that this is a putsch by the conspirators of the “prosecution inside the prosecution.” In the absence of compromise, there will be war. It’s not certain that Israelis will die in this war, but their state surely will.