Throughout most of the past year, Israel has been consumed by a legalistic-formalistic debate on whether a prime minister can stay at his post while facing criminal indictments. The dispute pits the strict letter of the law, which does not mandate the prime minister’s resignation, against its spirit, which would seem to indicate the contrary. The object of the argument is, of course, Benjamin Netanyahu, but he is also its main beneficiary.
The constitutional controversy not only obscures the actual severity of Netanyahu’s nefarious conduct, as outlined in the damning pre-indictment document published by the attorney general in late February; it sidelines the far graver crimes committed by Netanyahu against democracy and the rule of law in an effort to escape the long arm of the law.
That is why the refusal of Netanyahu’s rivals on the center-left to join a new government with him at the helm should be based not only on the probability that he will be charged with crimes of corruption. A prime minister who savaged police investigators, undermined state prosecutors, tainted the legal system as biased and beholden to external pressures and incited against the free press that covers his misdeeds is unworthy of continuing at his job.
A prime minister who is a demagogue who “demonizes minorities and his political enemies to hide his devotion to the art of the shady deal,” as E. J. Dionne wrote on Friday of U.S. President Donald Trump in the Washington Post, is not an appropriate partner for political alliances.
A prime minister who cultivates a cult of personality that corrodes the loyalty of Israel’s entire right wing to the state and its laws should be ejected from the political arena. A prime minister who guts his own party, wrenches out its heart and turns its leaders into pathetic automatons is a carrier of a dangerous virus that needs to be eradicated. A prime minister whose weapons of choice are incitement and division should simply stop being prime minister. Period.
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Contrary to the right wing’s cynical cry of a “personal boycott” against Netanyahu – which is ironic, given his mastery of the ad hominem attack – resistance to his continued leadership isn’t personal at all. The problem isn’t Bibi, per se, but the Bibism with which he has infected Israel’s body politic. As long as Netanyahu is around, the chances for complete recuperation are slim.
Barely a month has gone by since the recent election, but its main import has already been sidelined. On September 17, Israeli democracy stood at the eve of its own destruction. A slight movement of a handful of Knesset seats to the right and Netanyahu would have won his coveted majority of 61, which would have given him a carte blanche to undermine the rule of law as he sees fit.
The elections may not have decided the identity of the next coalition but they threw democracy a lifeline. Handing the reins back to Netanyahu is tantamount to re-wrapping the rope around its neck.
Benny Gantz and Kahol Lavan are thus not only obligated to resist calls to join a Netanyahu-led government and to try and form an alternative coalition at almost any price. Their first and most urgent mission is to fortify democracy and the rule of law so that Israel will never stand again at the edge of the abyss into which Netanyahu sought to push it.
A new government should thus limit the tenure of prime ministers, as Gantz has already proposed. It should build a defensive shield around gatekeepers and guardians of the law and immunize them against outside intervention. It should separate the role of attorney general from that of director of public prosecutions, whose problematic fusion is now evident for all to see. And, if possible, it should reform the electoral system that, under Netanyahu, almost brought Israel to ruin.
The task is so imperative that it negates any other consideration, including the risk of a new election, the third this year. If anyone should be afraid of a new election, it is Netanyahu himself: His magic is wearing thin and fatigue is spreading amongst his most loyal ranks. As an avid student of electoral trends, Netanyahu has only to look at the descending graph of the Likud vote in the two ballots held this year in order to fear yet another vote.
If the Likud in particular and the right in general refuse to discard the albatross hanging on their necks and prefer to go off the deep end and sink with it in the process, this is their prerogative. Israel, for its part, will breathe much easier.