(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel held only three direct elections for prime minister – in 1996, 1999 and 2001. We had gone back to the old, party-based system by 2003. But this year, it seems that the election campaign is being fought as a personal race for all intents and purposes, at least when it comes to Benjamin Netanyahu.
After his three terms and 10 consecutive years as prime minister, the current campaign focuses on a single and totally personal issue: do we want Netanyahu to stay in office or not? All the competing parties, except for the Likud and the religious parties, are united in calling out Netanyahu’s policies and/or his personal conduct – and this includes not only those to the left of the Likud, but also Yisrael Beiteinu and the New Right party, which maintain that his security policy is too lax. The various centrist parties are not bothering to clarify and fine-tune what makes them stand apart from their rivals in this category; the debate among them comes down to the question of whose leader is popular enough to bring down Netanyahu.
Israel has had 12 prime ministers in its 70 years, but none provoked such fierce emotional debates as Netanyahu. The only ones who came close were Yitzhak Rabin after the Oslo Accords and Ariel Sharon in advance of the Gaza disengagement. Then however, it was their policy that fomented the storm, whereas Netanyahu stirs up an emotional tempest without doing anything out of the ordinary policy-wise.
There are several reasons for this. First comes his “original sin:” his “audacity” to come out on top in what should have been a crushing defeat in the elections after the Rabin assassination. The fact that from his very first day in office, Netanyahu was viewed with hostility by broad sectors of the public and media, demonstrates that what triggered the storm was the very fact of his victory, only six months after the assassination, when the Left perceived him as one of the leading inciters against Rabin. We can add to this, the political polarization of Israeli society since the assassination, precisely because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at a dead-end – neither a peace agreement nor a “Greater Israel” seem possible at present. So the two camps tend to veer away from a positive approach of promoting their own agenda to the negative politics of despising the rival for stealing their dream. To these must be added, of course, Netanyahu’s rhetorical skills and broad political perspective, which paint him as invincible for both supporters and rivals and augment the latter’s frustration and the former’s adulation.
But in the term that is just ending, Netanyahu and his government have acted in a way that moves the debate away from the attitude towards Netanyahu the man, and focuses it on the future of Israeli democracy. These years have seen repeated and systematic attempts to delegitimize key national institutions when their actions did not coincide with the outlook of some on the right. The targets of these attempts were the IDF in the Elor Azarya case (the Hebron shooting incident), the Supreme Court and its judicial activism, and the General Security Service and the interrogation of members of the extreme Right.
The process reached its disturbing peak in connection with the police investigations of Netanyahu and the suspicions that he had tried to buy illegitimate influence over two major media outlets by granting them favors that were in his power to offer. What is more, in his efforts to escape any accusations, he has not hesitated to incite against the police and the State Prosecutor’s Office and has even sketched out a path for future attacks and delegitimization by hinting that if he is indicted, the decision to do so will have been taken only as the result of the pressure exerted by “left-wing demonstrators.”
Let us make it clear: any focused and specific criticism of government institutions is legitimate and, when backed by facts, warrants investigation. Ideological debates are certainly legitimate. What is not acceptable is the systematic attempt to undermine the status and credibility of state agencies, with no factual backing or when motivated by the prime minister’s personal interests or the ideology of some partisans of the Right. This attempt must be unequivocally rejected by everyone, including supporters of the Right. In fact, those who see themselves as the “National Camp” should stand at the forefront of those defending the security and judicial agencies, even if they disagree with their leadership on specific issues. The writer is a research fellow in the Religion and State Program at the Israel Democracy Institute.
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