Netanyahu, the Gravedigger of Statesmanship

The survival of democracy depends on a system of checks and balances constantly undermined by the current prime minister.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting, May 8, 2016.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting, May 8, 2016.Credit: Roen Zvulun/AFP
Haaretz Editorial

On the eve of Independence Day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu increased his aggressive attacks against state institutions. He accused State Comptroller Joseph Shapira (via his “associates”) of allowing political motives to influence his reportedly critical report into the handling of the most recent war in Gaza. He accused Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Yair Golan of “cheapening the Holocaust,” while Likud ministers demanded that Golan apologize or resign. Earlier, Netanyahu expressed solidarity with Elor Azaria, the soldier accused of manslaughter after killing a wounded Palestinian assailant – contrary to the views of the army brass and the defense minister, who considered Azaria’s behavior a moral stain on the Israel Defense Forces.

This behavior is nothing new. During his previous term, when he struggled to prevent Reuven Rivlin from being elected president, Netanyahu proposed abolishing the institution of the presidency altogether. But since the last election and his decision to form a far-right government, the prime minister has been following the path set out for him by the leaders of Habayit Hayehudi – ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who consider criticism of the government as being a danger to the national interest.

It seems Netanyahu believes that state institutions exist in order to serve two purposes: extending his tenure; and strengthening Israel’s public diplomacy overseas – ostensibly to guard against the BDS movement and anti-Semites and, in effect, to silence criticism about the continuation of the occupation and undermine Israeli democracy.

Every statement and deed that stands in contradiction to these goals is labeled traitorous and dangerous, and leads to calls from Netanyahu, his ministers and “associates” to oust the speaker, as in the case of Golan; to undermine their authority, as in the cases of the state comptroller, chief of staff and defense minister; or their replacement by yes men, in the case of the Supreme Court after its justices overturned the natural gas framework deal. And no one is immune from the lashings of the prime minister and his partners – not even people who were appointed to their positions having demonstrated loyalty to the ruler, like Shapira and Ya’alon.

Democracy is not only rule by the coalition majority in the Knesset via its representatives in the government. Its survival is also dependent on internal checks and balances, and on restraining the government by means of institutions such as the courts, the State Comptroller’s Office, and the civil and security services. Their heads have independent authority and responsibility, and have a duty to warn of defects. They should not be expected to serve as a chorus for the premier and his ministers, working in the shadow of the threat that they will be ousted or reviled if they express an opinion.

Those who fear for the future of Israeli democracy, and don’t want to replace it with an alliance of thugs, must protect the state institutions from Netanyahu’s attacks and offer a worthy alternative to his rule, before he crushes the last remnants of statesmanship once and for all.

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