While Israel’s supporters proudly praise the country as the only true democracy in the Middle East, the foundations of that democracy are under constant pressure by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his disciples – and it will only get worse once he clears the political hurdles of forming his new coalition government.
Surprisingly, many Israelis are beginning to think that the Shin Bet – the General Security Service known by its Hebrew acronym, Shabak – could be the ultimate restraint on Netanyahu and his right-wing ministers. As improbable as it would seem, the clandestine security agency may have to save Israel from its elected leader.
The prime minister, who was Trumpian before Donald Trump but is increasingly so, would surely describe this notion as “an attempted coup.” Netanyahu has indeed suggested that police investigators and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who have drafted corruption charges against him, are not only disloyal but they are harming Israel, its security, its economy, and its reputation. Americans can easily recognize the parallels.
Mandelblit, incidentally, announced on May 22 that he had acceded to Netanyahu’s request to postpone his pre-indictment hearing from July 10 to October 2.
The Shin Bet, a lesser known security agency that has lived in the shadow of the famous and flamboyant Mossad and the much larger Military Intelligence agency, combines responsibilities that in the United States are handled by the FBI, police departments and the Secret Service.
Yet for decades, the Shin Bet was literally lawless. The agency acted together with the Mossad – at the behest of whichever prime minister was in power – handling assignments as broad as catching foreign spies, kidnapping Nazi war criminals, and compiling dossiers on alleged political subversives inside Israel among both the majority Jews and the minority Arabs.
More than 30 years ago, the Israeli press broke its old taboos and revealed severe abuses by the Shin Bet, notably the lethal beating of Palestinian bus hijackers who had been captured alive. The media, to its great credit, unveiled a pattern of unjustifiable arrests especially in the West Bank, as well as brutal interrogations and imprisonment that can only be described as torture.
The most laudable result was passage by the Knesset of the Shabak Bill in 2002. The Shin Bet had lobbied, as fiercely as an agency shrouded in secrecy can, to block the legislation claiming the bill would hamper its vital work of smashing terrorist cells and preventing attacks on Israelis.
Politicians felt, however, that the clandestine enforcers had to be reined in, and the memory of their most glaring failure – when prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish right-wing extremist – was still fresh in their minds.
The law for the first time set limits on interrogation techniques, and perhaps more importantly defined the role of the secret service in a free society.
It is relevant, in these troubled times in Israel, to note that the legislation contains several passages that refer to the Shin Bet as a guardian of democracy. The legalistic phrasing authorized the agency “to prevent illegal activity aimed at undermining the democratic system and its institutions.”
For 17 years now the Shabak Bill has served as a road map to the agency’s top brass and to its rank-and-file field agents on how to perform their duties in an impartial way far removed from internal political disputes, while urging them to be loyal only to the state and the law.
The Shin Bet is a major part of achieving a balance between two contradictory Israeli goals: being a “Jewish state” with one-quarter of its citizens non-Jewish, while maintaining a democracy despite a non-stop war with the Palestinians living under Israel in the West Bank and with its neighbors in Gaza, Lebanon and Syria.
Israelis in all walks of life have been proud of their country’s freedom of speech, independent media, and perhaps above all, an independent judiciary and Supreme Court.
Since 2009, however, when Netanyahu was elected prime minister and reelected three times, Israel’s democratic institutions have found themselves under attack by his government and political allies. They hope to curtail the authority of the courts, targeting the Supreme Court with the aim of turning it into an echo chamber of their political and ideological preferences. Last year the government passed the controversial Nation-State Law, which basically affirms national rights only to Israel’s Jewish citizens.
Hoping to avoid indictment on fraud and bribery charges, Netanyahu is now pushing for a law that would grant the prime minister immunity from criminal prosecution. The so-called immunity bill – which would grant the prime minister and all members of Knesset political immunity from any criminal proceedings – was presented to the Knesset in May by MK Miki Zohar, a member of Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party.
Again, this is a reminder of Trump’s situation, but it also suggests an Israeli leader portraying himself as indispensable to his nation’s safety and well-being, modeled on Turkey’s President Tayyip Reçep Erdoğan. Thus some Israelis refer to their prime minister as “Erdoğanyahu.”
Liberal, secular Israelis have to admit that their side lost last month’s election, and they are horrified to note that in late June, Netanyahu will become the country’s longest-serving prime minister, surpassing founding father David Ben-Gurion’s 13 years and four months in office. Centrist and left-leaning Israelis as well as many frustrated moderates feel that their beloved nation is traveling on a dark path from democracy to a semi-dictatorship enveloped in radical Jewish Orthodoxy, xenophobia, and hatred.
In desperation, secular Israelis hope that the military and security establishment – including the Shin Bet that they used to respect and fear – can play a central role in defending Israeli democracy. The security establishment in recent years has proved to be a moderate force balancing tendencies by trigger-happy ministers to launch risky adventures and unnecessary wars.
The Shin Bet, headed by Nadav Argaman, must conduct thorough surveillance of extreme right-wingers, mainly among radical Jewish settlers in the West Bank who often plot violence against Palestinians and liberal Israelis in order to shatter hopes of cooperation, coexistence and peace.
Moreover, if Netanyahu refuses to leave office one day, or perhaps even tries to avoid arrest after charges are filed, then the Israeli public has a right to expect that the Shin Bet – the agency that includes the prime minister’s bodyguards – will obey the rule of law and not the fiat of Netanyahu.
Yossi Melman is co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars. He tweets at @yossi_melman