What’s not at stake in Israel’s election: democracy

Claims that Netanyahu is about to destroy Israel’s democratic system sound much like the same fears voiced about Trump.

View of a giant election campaign poster in Jerusalem showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud Party, March 31, 2019. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
View of a giant election campaign poster in Jerusalem showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud Party, March 31, 2019. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

When Israelis vote on April 9, a lot will be riding on the outcome. But there is one thing that will not be decided in this election: whether or not Israel will remain a democratic state. Whether or not the incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud Party are able to form the next government—or, if instead, it’s Benny Gantz and his Blue and White Party that will lead the country—the Jewish state is not about to begin a slide into authoritarianism in which the rule of law, the free press and an independent judiciary might be lost.

That’s not what a lot of commentators in both the United States and Israel are saying. To the contrary, much of the discussion about the contest in which Netanyahu is seeking his fourth consecutive (and fifth overall) term in office has centered on the notion that another win for him will mark the end of the country’s democratic system.

With the Israeli left and its platform advocating land-for-peace schemes aimed at resolving the conflict with the Palestinians once and for all largely discredited in the eyes of a majority of Israelis, it’s perhaps understandable that many people are now thinking about more than war and peace. Or at least that’s the way Netanyahu’s critics are framing the election in large measure because they know if the outcome were based solely on his performance in, there would be little doubt that he’d win.

So instead, they’re trying to turn the vote for the Knesset into a referendum on Netanyahu’s character.

While Netanyahu is used to being demonized by the left, this time around he’s also being skewered by some of the more respected voices in Jewish life, like author and journalist Yossi Klein Halevi, historian Gil Troy and New York Times columnist Bret Stephens. All of them are strong supporters of the Jewish state. Nor can they be accused of seeking to undermine it or engage in efforts to cover up or ignore the intransigence of the Palestinians, which is the usual theme of Netanyahu’s detractors, who seek to delegitimize him so as to help delegitimize Israel itself.

However, each of them seems convinced that Netanyahu must be defeated because another term would mark a step into the abyss that the country’s democracy can’t afford.

For Stevens, Netanyahu has become indistinguishable from the kind of sectarian and “ideological tribalism” that is a greater threat to the Jewish state than its external enemies. According to Troy, Netanyahu is the embodiment of a “culture of corruption,” as well as one of “polarization and demonization that keeps crossing once-agreed-upon red lines.” Halevi decries Netanyahu’s depiction of the courts, the police and the media as “co-conspirators” in a plot to get him. Halevi also worries that Netanyahu is closing off the possibility of a two-state solution by flirting with the annexation of parts of Judea and Samaria, and that this will also ultimately doom Israeli democracy because it will mean a choice between a binational state and apartheid.

If this apocalyptic talk sounds familiar, it should. Since it became clear that he would be indicted on what I (and many Israelis) think are rather flimsy corruption charges, Netanyahu’s foes have begun to sound a lot like some of the Democrats who predicted that the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States would herald the end of American freedom and usher in a rerun of the last years of the Weimar Republic, if not the dawn of a new age of authoritarianism.

But just as those predictions proved to be ridiculous (whatever you think about Trump’s behavior and his policies, a free press, free elections, independent courts and the Constitution are still flourishing), the same is true about the rhetoric claiming another Netanyahu government will doom Israel.

Let’s concede that while a lot of this anti-Netanyahu hysteria is rooted in partisanship, some of it (as is the case with his friend in the White House) can be blamed on the prime minister himself.

After 10 consecutive years in office, the Israeli public is right to be tired of Netanyahu, his querulous family and the hangers-on in his administration. Governments that go on forever tend to breed a sense of entitlement that always results in trouble of one sort or another.

It’s also true that Netanyahu—as ruthless a partisan warrior as he is a skillful economic manager and diplomat—has invited criticism with his too-clever-by-half maneuver in which he helped broker a merger between one right-wing religious party and Otzma Yehudit, another faction led by followers of the late radical Rabbi Meir Kahane in order to enhance his chances of winning the election.

But if Netanyahu’s complaints about the left-leaning Israeli Supreme Court, the largely left-wing media and the police have resonated with many Israelis, it’s because they know how these institutions have been politicized. They also think the charges against him do not rise to the level of misbehavior that should be required in order to carry out what is, for all intents and purposes, a legal coup against an elected government.

Should Netanyahu try to legislate immunity for himself in the next Knesset, as some of his critics fear, that would change the discussion, but until then there is no reason to buy into the claims of authoritarianism being thrown at him.

Nor does his talk about applying Israeli law to some of the settlements, coupled with his vow not to uproot settlers, amount to an end of any hope of peace. Should the Palestinians ever decide to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, they’ll find Israel’s leaders ready to deal. Until then, making clear that, as is the case with Jerusalem and the Golan, Israel won’t be giving up land that it would keep in even a theoretical two-state solution doesn’t foreclose any options in the future.

While left-wing pundits keep reiterating that Israeli democracy is in grave danger, what that really means is that they are disappointed that the refusal of the Palestinians to make peace has shifted Israeli politics to the right and given success to a leader they despise.

Some of Netanyahu’s mainstream critics have romanticized Gantz and the Blue and White Party as a throwback to the idealism of Israel’s past. A more dispassionate analysis requires examining the idea that a chorus line of former generals (with one ex-journalist, Yair Lapid, as their sidekick) largely mimicking his policy proposals is a better guarantee of democracy than a seasoned practitioner like Netanyahu.

In the event that Netanyahu forms the next government, Israeli democracy will be just as messy, nasty, bitter and contentious as it has been for the last 70 years. But, as proved to be the case with Trump, democratic rule will not end. Israel’s voters will make their decision based on what they think is best for the country. Everyone else has a right to complain about the outcome, but that itself will exhibit an expression of democracy, not its downfall.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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