Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apparently has trouble weaning himself of the practices his government adopted under cover of the coronavirus emergency. To fight the spread of the virus, the government gave itself broad powers over Israelis, including the right to restrict freedom of movement and freedom of expression and to use draconian monitoring methods. All this curtailed and undermined individual rights.
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On Sunday, we learned that during the first days of the recent fighting in the Gaza Strip and the intercommunal riots between Jews and Arabs in mixed cities, Netanyahu proposed shutting down social media in Israel as a way of extinguishing clashes inside the country. According to Justice Ministry sources, Netanyahu asked Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to look into blocking TikTok, which he said was fanning unrest among Arab Israelis.
It turns out that in Netanyahu’s view, the right to incite via social media ought to be reserved exclusively for him, his family and the members of his cabinet. Netanyahu’s Israel is in bad company. According to a report issued this year by the internet research firm Top10VPN, 21 governments shut down the internet in 2020 for limited periods of time. The countries that imposed the longest internet shutdowns were India, Chad and Myanmar. The most common reason for doing so, the report said, was civil unrest or protests, especially during election campaigns. Turkey also has a habit of blocking access to key social media networks – Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter. Until recently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan even blocked access to Wikipedia.
Netanyahu is evidently determined to position Israel within the family of illiberal nations. He doesn’t even try to hide it. The Prime Minister’s Office admitted in response to Sunday’s media reports that it “sought to examine ways to contend with the problem of inflammatory videos on TikTok, which, according to police and security officials, contributed to the spread of the violence.” Luckily for Israel, Netanyahu’s power is still limited to some extent, including by the gatekeepers and institutions he hasn’t yet managed to destroy. Sources familiar with the details of the proposal said it was opposed by the attorney general, the Shin Bet security service and other defense officials.
Israel has enough tools, security services and personnel to deal with both external and internal security challenges during a crisis or emergency. The government must exhaust all the tools at its disposal before rushing to impose a collective online curfew. But Netanyahu is evidently no longer capable of ruling without such exceptional means. That’s one more reason to oust his government and to hope that a government of change is formed in its stead.
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The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.