Opinion |

The Madness of Emperor Netanyahu

A weakened Supreme Court and a besieged free press are the last obstacles guarding Israel's democracy.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
PM Netanyahu attends a cyber-tech conference, January 2017.
PM Netanyahu attends a cyber-tech conference, January 2017.Credit: Eyal Toueg
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Emperor Caligula stood next to a sculpture of Jupiter and asked the Hellenic actor Apelles from Ashkelon who was greater, he or the Roman god. When Apelles hesitated, Caligula flayed him alive with a whip, all the while praising him for the vocal quality of his tortured cries of pain. When asked about the incident, Caligula replied: “Remember I have the power to do anything to anyone.” The Romans did indeed remember, which is why they put up with Caligula’s atrocities and lunacies for a few years, including his nomination of his horse Incitatus as consul.

Fear of a tyrant’s fierce reprisal has always served as a prime motivation for the silence and even praise with which their most outrageous abominations are received. When Romania's communist leader, Nicolai Ceausescu, demanded that his wife Elena’s name be cited in each and every scientific paper published in Romania, his advisers praised his wise move. When Saparumrat Niyazov, Turkmenistan's whimsical ex-President, announced that only people who could recite his book by heart would be eligible for driver’s licenses, the press in Turkmenistan lauded his wise judgment. And when North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, who was sensitive about his height, expelled all short people from the capital Pyongyang, the public hailed his courageous and necessary action.

As George R. R. Martin wrote in Game of Thrones, “Fear cuts deeper than swords.” The problem, however, is that despite the fact that Israeli cabinet ministers and members of the Knesset are not threatened by physical extinction or by arrest and torture - not yet, anyway - the overwhelming majority of them have remained silent in the face of Benjamin Netanyahu’s obsession with the media and his recent move to dismantle the public news corporation that he himself set up only a year ago. Some are even trying to conjure a logic that is supposedly hidden just beneath the prime minister’s madness.

They all know that Netanyahu's latest move is a crazy and capricious compulsion that has shaken the world of hundreds of the fledgling news corporation’s employees as well as their families. They know too that it will cost the state’s coffers many millions of shekels, and that it exposes the shaky foundations of Israeli democracy. And yet, convenience, expediency and, yes, fear too, are inducing them to lay low and keep out of trouble.

The issue extends far beyond the news corporation, the ridiculous claims of a “leftist” media and even freedom of speech. If Netanyahu can make coalition members jump through a hoop and turn 180-degrees on a bill that they themselves approved only a year ago, without ever knowing why, then surely anything and everything is possible.

Tomorrow Netanyahu will announce, like the Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko before him, that his is the only name that can be mentioned on evening news programs, or that the month of December, as Niyazov announced, will henceforth be named after him. Senior Likud ministers, such as Yisrael Katz or Gilad Erdan will decide the time isn’t ripe for confronting the prime minister, his Coalition Chairman MK David Bitan will explain why the new measures are vital and the Knesset will emphatically reject a motion of no-confidence on the madness of King Benjamin, as Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg will call him from the podium.

Israel doesn’t have three separate branches of government any more; at most it’s only one and a half. The Knesset, which is supposed to be independent and to supervise the government’s conduct, has turned into its obedient rubber stamp. Israeli parliamentarians diligently do as they're told, fearful of being written down in prime minister's black books or those of their Central Committee members. Instead of encouraging independence, daring and creativity, Israeli politics fosters spineless, self-absorbed politicians whose only aim in life is to survive and get reelected.

With the exception of a smattering of parliamentarians, the last remaining constraints on the prime minister’s arbitrariness and irrationality are the Supreme Court, which is fighting for its life, and the free press, which is under constant attack from Netanyahu. Most of his colleagues and party members may be privately appalled by Netanyahu’s actions but, sadly, they are doing nothing to stop him. Not now, or in the future.

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