The Personality Cult Around Netanyahu

For a few years now, Israelis have been subjected to a slow brainwashing whose purpose is to instill the idea that the government in Israel is personal rather than collective

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in south Tel Aviv, August 31, 2018
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in south Tel Aviv with locals calling on him to deport African asylum seekers, August 31, 2018. Credit: \ Moti Milrod
 Yuval Yoaz
Yuval Yoaz

The events of last weekend focused public attention in Israel on security: the entry of an Iranian drone, the downing of an air force plane and strikes on several targets in Syria. Once more the prime minister was seen in the situation, handling security matters personally, the defense minister to his left and the military chief of staff to his right. The images sent a message that filtered down to large sections of the public: Israel is dependent on Benjamin Netanyahu. There is no substitute for him, and even if there were, the time for rocking the ship of state is not when the security situation is sensitive, whether or not there’s evidence to support the allegations of corruption.

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For a few years now, Israelis have been subjected to a slow brainwashing whose purpose is to instill the idea that the government in Israel is personal rather than collective. The consciousness developing can be as the groundwork for a shift from Israel’s parliamentary system to a quasi-presidential one. The prime minister was once considered to be the “first among equals” in relation to the rest of the cabinet. Now the premier seems to be handling state affairs nearly single-handedly.

Netanyahu’s tendency to continue to appropriate the duties of government ministers, until the High Court of Justice drew a line whose trespass was unacceptable, contributed to this development. To this should be added legislation such as the “Litzman Law,” whose sole purpose is to allow the prime minister to surround himself with deputy ministers instead of full-fledged government ministers, in a way that compromises their ministerial independence and guarantees their dependence on Netanyahu.

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All of these factors aggravate one of the maladies that has afflicted Israel’s government in recent years, an over-concentration of executive powers and governing power in the hands of one individual. The checks and balances have been eroded. That could weaken the state’s democratic character, since democracy is based on the wide distribution of power, authority and responsibility. There is no sole leader, as there is in a monarchy or a dictatorship.

The more the prime minister tries to create among the public and in the political system the sense that “the prime minister cannot be replaced during a militarily sensitive period,” however, the more he relies on an understanding that has taken root in the collective subconscious, which holds that Netanyahu carries the entire weight of the Israeli government on his shoulders. The message is that no one can step into his shoes, the whole thing would fall apart without him.

That is the exact opposite of the democratic idea. It’s another reason to reverse the trend of concentrating more and more authority in the hands of the prime minister: whether formally through legislation, or unofficially by bending the cabinet and the coalition to his will. Israel needs an injection of democratic vitality in the form of the decentralization of power, so that the replacement of any specific individual, even the prime minister, will not affect the mechanisms of government.

It may not be possible to force Netanyahu to use the plural form, “we” instead of “I,” when boasting of public accomplishments, but there is not and cannot be even a single person in the government who is “irreplaceable,” whose removal from the public sphere would lead to the downfall of the machinery of the government. In a functioning democracy, everyone is replaceable, even the defense minister during wartime, the prime minister during international negotiations or the attorney general during a sensitive investigation at the topmost reaches of government.

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