Can Israeli democracy be hijacked?

MIDDLE ISRAEL: Netanyahu may have changed, but the Jews haven’t, and they will confront autocracy in the future as their forebears did in the past.

ISRAELIS HOLD A counter-protest in support of Benjamin Netanyahu close to a demonstration against him near the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem last week. The sign reads: ‘The people trust Netanyahu!’  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
ISRAELIS HOLD A counter-protest in support of Benjamin Netanyahu close to a demonstration against him near the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem last week. The sign reads: ‘The people trust Netanyahu!’
Having invented a Soviet takeover of the US, the TV miniseries Amerika attracted a record 100 million viewers, but critics mocked the alternative-history story as farfetched.
So did events. Aired in winter 1987, just after the Chernobyl disaster exposed the USSR’s ailments, a plot revolving around a KGB colonel ruling a swath of the US and an American presidential candidate shoved into a gulag sounded silly already then. The Soviet Union’s dissolution soon afterward made the series altogether forgotten.
Even so, ever since George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four literary depictions of fascistic conquests in the West make successful fiction, because they remind us of our freedom’s fragility.
Novelist Len Deighton’s drama SS-GB (BBC, 2017) imagines life in London the morning after Germany’s successful invasion of the British Isles. The plot – a British underground’s effort to enlist a collaborationist police detective – is interesting enough, but the story’s real power lies not in its dramatic dynamics, but in its alternative history.
Winston Churchill is dead, King George is in jail, and the Germans are letting the Soviets exhume in London and rebury in Moscow the remains of Karl Marx. Underscored by a convincing photo-shop of Buckingham Palace in ruins and surrounded by swastikas, it forces us to recall that the prospect of a British defeat in World War II – unlike a Soviet victory in the Cold War – was not unrealistic at all.
While these alternative histories imagine democracy’s defeat by foreign invasion, Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup (1982) has a media mogul and a secret-service spook plot to unseat a leftist prime minister who promises to leave NATO, de-monopolize newspaper chains, and destroy his country’s nuclear weapons.
Written by a Labour lawmaker, this plot was dismissed by some as politically tendentious. That could not be said about House of Cards (1990) which was co-written by a Tory politician, Michael Dobbs, and still portrayed a Tory prime minister named Francis Urquhart who is so godless that he leads an overly inquisitive journalist to a rooftop from which he throws her to her death (the recent Netflix series by the same name is a poor American version of this British masterpiece.)
Such were democracy’s setbacks in fiction. In Israel they have become part of the nightly news.
EVIDENCE THAT Israel’s prime minister is undermining its democracy is circumstantial, but piling.
Benjamin Netanyahu has led his country to three elections within 11 months, and his government left vacant the office of Israel Police chief for the past 20 months, and the state attorney’s position for the past 10 months. Before that, citing the pandemic’s first lockdown, then-Justice Minister Amir Ohana shut down the courts in an apparent, and initially successful, attempt to delay Netanyahu’s trial.
When the trial opened after a 40-day delay, Netanyahu emerged at the District Court’s entrance accompanied by a political phalanx including the ministers of internal security, finance, and education, and accused the judiciary, police and media of conspiring to unseat him.
Considering that some of the prosecution’s witnesses are police and Treasury officials, their bosses’ emergence in court alongside Netanyahu was arguably designed to deliver what the cinematic Vincenzo Pentangeli delivered Michael Corleone by showing up at his Senate hearing: witness intimidation.
Then, as the second lockdown descended on the country, it was used to pass emergency legislation banning demonstrations. Then police brutalized anti-Netanyahu demonstrators. Then police videotaped a demonstrator reprimanding an Ethiopian cop who was dragging him away from outside the Prime Minister’s Residence, and leaked the footage, so that the demonstrator – retired Israel Air Force Gen. Amir Haskel – would seem racist.
While this happened in the streets, Netanyahu left the country without a budget, and his treasurer undercut the Treasury’s senior executives, three of whom consequently resigned. So in addition to having no police chief and no state attorney, Israel now also has no budget director, no accountant-general, and no director-general of the Treasury.
Suspicions are therefore growing that this gathering chaos is planned; that it is engineered to make people welcome authoritarianism. At some point, goes this theory, Netanyahu will call an election, win a landslide, appoint loyalists as police chief, attorney-general, and state attorney, pass legislation that will suspend his trial, and then install judges who will cancel his indictments.
Time will tell whether Netanyahu has become a Francis Urquhart, and whether he has plotted a police state. Right now only Netanyahu can answer this mortifying question.
What we can answer by ourselves is the other question his actions raise, namely: Can hijacking Israeli democracy work?
Well it can’t. Does anyone seriously think anyone can bring gulags, Pravda, personality cult, and mass arrests to the Jewish state? To the Jewish people? To the nation that couldn’t be silenced even by the KGB’s goons, nor shackled by Pharaoh’s chains?
As Netanyahu himself told the US Congress in 1996, ours is a “total commitment to the spirit of democracy” and an “infinite dedication to freedom... derived from the Bible and the precepts of morality that the Jewish people have given the world.”
Yes, Netanyahu has since then come a long way. “No one was ever indicted for favorable media coverage,” he said on that sorry morning at the District Court’s threshold, thus twisting one of the allegations he faces, which is not that he got favorable coverage (from website Walla), but that he got it in turn for regulatory favoritism worth NIS 1.8 billion.
Netanyahu will ultimately depart, but the Jewish morality he hailed, and the Bible he celebrated that day in Washington, will outlive him, as will King Jehoshaphat’s message in that book (Chronicles II 19:7) to the independent judiciary he created: “There is no injustice or favoritism or bribe-taking with the Lord our God.”
Amotz Asa-El’s bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity.