The theme Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opponents are banging away at—and that includes not just his political opposition, but most of the mainstream media in Israel and a small army on social media—it is that he is “destroying democracy,” or even trying to turn Israel into a dictatorship. If you don’t believe me, just google “Israel democracy Netanyahu” and you will get pages and pages of the same old … stuff.
Democracy, in the broadest sense of the term, means that the citizens of a state determine its policies by voting. Usually they vote for representatives to run things according to their understanding of what’s best for everyone, like parliaments or senators and congressmen, prime ministers or presidents. They grant these representatives power for a limited period, and then review their performance by holding elections.
Different countries have developed different systems for doing this, and some are better than others. Israel has a system of proportional representation by political party, which does offer some theoretical advantages but also one big disadvantage: It doesn’t work. Israel has had three elections in about one year and none of them have enabled the formation of a government coalition.
The system is what is preventing Israel’s democracy from functioning, not Netanyahu. Netanyahu’s Likud Party got a plurality of Knesset seats in the March 2 elections, although not a majority; no one party ever gets a majority. His bloc, which means the Likud plus some religious and right-wing parties, is short of a majority, too. So why doesn’t the opposition have a majority? Because it has two parts: one comprising the Blue and White Party and a few other parties on the (more or less) Zionist left, and one consisting of the 15 seats held by anti-Zionist Arab parties.
Not one of the Arab legislators will agree that Israel should be a Jewish state in any sense of the word. The most moderate would prefer it to be a “state of its citizens,” like the United States, for example. The slightly less moderate would like it to become a binational state, while the rest are Islamists or Palestinian or pan-Arab nationalists. I like to think that the political forces that produced them are not an expression of the true attitudes of Israel’s Arab citizens, but I’m not sure.
Most of Blue and White’s leaders could not bring themselves to include the Joint List in the coalition (would you?), but apparently they are not averse to forming a minority government that depends on its votes. Israel’s system allows minority coalitions, as long as they don’t lose a vote of confidence.
Such a coalition would mean the Joint List having veto power over all government actions. Given the ideologies of the Joint List’s component parties, that is unacceptable. And at least three members of the opposition agree with me, so such a coalition will not be formed. There is a law, by the way, that says that someone who “[negates] the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” can’t sit in the Knesset, but Israel’s Supreme Court has prevented its application to Arab Israelis.
The other alternative is to form a unity government in which the leaders of the two major parties would take turns at being prime minister. That is the direction Israel appears to be going in now. The two largest parties, Likud and Blue and White, have been negotiating terms—who will fill the various ministerial slots, who will be premier first and for how long, and so on.
However, at the same time the opposition is trying to pass laws that will prevent Netanyahu from being prime minister at all, because he is under indictment for alleged corruption. In a way it is not ex post facto because he has not yet tried to form a government, but in a way it is, because Israelis voted on March 2 with the understanding that he could.
It is also possible that if Netanyahu were to be offered the position of prime minister of a unity government, the Supreme Court will jump in and find a way to disqualify him. They have received petitions to this end, but chose not to decide because until the moment that he actually tries to take the position, the issue is considered “theoretical.” The present law says that a prime minister can continue to serve when indicted, and only can be removed once convicted and with all appeals having been exhausted.
I should mention that while some of the charges against Netanyahu appear justified, some clearly don’t. It is also true that the behavior of the police and state prosecutor’s office during the three years of his investigation was reprehensible, bordering on criminal. There were daily leaks to hostile media, improper treatment of witnesses, and violations of privacy. In any event, he has not been convicted of anything.
Netanyahu says that the true danger to democracy is the combination of non-elected forces—the attorney general (in Israel, he has far more power than the equivalent official in the United States), the State Prosecutor and the Supreme Court—acting against an elected prime minister. The selection of all of these is controlled to a great extent by one organization: the Israel Bar Association.
It is also true that from an overall perspective, the people of Israel have consistently voted for a right-wing government in recent years, especially since the debacle of the Second Intifada. They didn’t always get one, as when Yitzhak Rabin promised that he wouldn’t talk to the PLO and then ended up on the White House Lawn with Arafat, or when the formerly right-wing Ehud Olmert took over from Ariel Sharon after the latter’s stroke and tried to negotiate a withdrawal from virtually all of Judea and Samaria.
Today the explicitly left-wing parties, like the Labor Party that ruled Israel from its founding until 1977, have withered away to almost nothing. Since Menachem Begin’s 1977 victory, we’ve had a situation in which a usually right-wing prime minister and Knesset confronts not only political opposition, but also left-wing media, legal, cultural and educational establishments. Blue and White, which has no real ideology other than a burning desire to oust Netanyahu, is supported by these groups.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu has been dealing with the coronavirus crisis appropriately, mostly following the guidance of the Health Ministry. His opposition, both in politics and the media, have been claiming that he is using the issue as a “pretext” to “seize authoritarian powers.” One writer even suggested that an order banning gatherings of more than 10 people was issued to prevent demonstrations! Their self-absorption is remarkable.
Netanyahu has been appearing on TV almost every evening, explaining the steps the government is taking and why. Personally, I find it reassuring, and I think he is doing the right thing to calm a nervous public—and to influence them to comply with the rules. But his enemies claim that it is all done for appearances. The fact is that anything that he does will irritate them, especially when he projects competence.
So what does democracy demand? Unfortunately, we can’t tell from our badly broken system. Until we can fix it, maybe it would be better to ask which of the possible outcomes is best for our country at this difficult time. The answer is a unity government, which need not contain either the extreme left or right, and which does not depend on the votes of anti-Zionist politicians. And probably the best person to lead it (eat your hearts out, Bibi Derangement Syndrome sufferers) is Netanyahu.
Victor Rosenthal was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., lived on a kibbutz through the 1980s and returned home to Israel in 2014 after 26 years in California. He writes at the Abu Yehuda blog.
This article was first published at AbuYehuda.com.