How Netanyahu beats the system

The erosion of the checks and balances in the Israeli political system enables the prime minister to impose his will.

PM Netanyahu participates in a forum hosted by the Center for American Progress in Washington November 10, 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS)
PM Netanyahu participates in a forum hosted by the Center for American Progress in Washington November 10, 2015
(photo credit: REUTERS)
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU is something of an enigma. By any objective standard he is a failed prime minister.
On the domestic front he has failed to rein in the high cost of living and soaring housing prices; on his watch high school achievements compared to those in the OECD have slipped dramatically; racism has become an almost legitimate component of public discourse; the rift between left and right is growing wider; and the security situation is deteriorating. In the foreign policy arena he has soured relations with the American administration and put Israel’s international standing in jeopardy.
Yet he keeps getting reelected.
Analysts attribute this largely to his rhetorical brilliance, campaigning skills and his effective use of a heady brew of scaremongering, incitement and identity politics to win the support of large swaths of the voting public. They also point to Israel’s complex security situation, regional developments like the emergence of ISIS and the collapse of Arab nation states, which help the scaremongering resonate.
These explanations are not without merit.
But there is another key layer of exegesis that has received little attention in public discourse or academic research: the power Netanyahu has been able to concentrate in his own hands. This has been achieved by a steady erosion of the checks and balances in the Israeli political system in a variety of ways. The result is a leader of great power, which partly explains his personal success, but also a concomitant weakening of the Israeli political and democratic systems.
The arrogation of power by Netanyahu runs like a leitmotif throughout his career from the early days when he won the Likud leadership and as he led the opposition to the Oslo Accords in the 1990s. As Likud chairman, he simultaneously transferred powers to himself and announced plans to democratize the party through full membership primaries for the party’s Knesset list, thereby weakening existing party institutions and enabling him to control the party agenda.
He then kept changing the system for electing the Knesset list in accordance with his needs – abrogating the “sevens” system in the Central Committee and introducing full party primaries in 1993, then cancelling the primaries and reverting in 1997 to the Central Committee, which by then he controlled, then again going back to full party primaries in 2006, with hints, over the past few years, of a possible return to the Central Committee.
By constantly chopping and changing the electoral system, Netanyahu makes it difficult for members of the Knesset faction or senior party members to create independent power bases. This weakens party democracy and gives Netanyahu tremendous power.
To further bolster his position, he regularly replaces Likud functionaries with people close to him personally and/or ideologically.
Netanyahu has also brought this type of acquiescent appointment to the government.
For example, the appointment of his then right-hand man Avigdor Liberman (now leader of the opposing Yisrael Beytenu party) as director general of the Prime Minister’s Office in 1996. He also backed Liberman’s boast that they intended to appoint “like-minded people” to key positions in the administration, including those that were not positions of trust. In other words, bringing in to key gatekeeper roles people who are unable to or don’t want to block the prime minister where the law or good government dictates that they should.
Two early examples were the sacking of Civil Service Commissioner Itzhak Galnoor at the very first government meeting under Netanyahu in 1996, and the appointment of a legal adviser to the Prime Minister’s Office to replace Ahaz Ben-Ari.
The climax was the nomination of lawyer Roni Bar-On as attorney general – an appointment that was shot down in less than 72 hours. The aim of these “like-minded” appointments is to create a situation in which the institutional gatekeepers don’t make it tough for Netanyahu to operate.
Netanyahu has had considerable success with the civil service, which has done little to block or restrain Likud appointments of THE JERUSALEM REPORT DECEMBER 28, 2015 7 REUTERS party cronies. As for the key post of attorney general, Netanyahu may have failed with Bar-On in 1996, but was eminently successful next time round with the appointment of the amenable Yehuda Weinstein in 2010.
This leads to a kind of limbo system somewhere between the rule of law and the rule of man, a regime that respects the letter but not the spirit of liberal democracy.
Netanyahu has also taken care to cut down to size potential leadership rivals or successors in the Likud – for example, Yitzhak Mordechai in the late 1990s and more recently a rising crop of young politicians, including Moshe Kahlon, Gideon Sa’ar and Gilad Erdan.
IN NETANYAHU’S second government (2009-2013), he went a step further with a string of amendments known as the “governance laws,” designed to strengthen executive powers. One of these amendments included a proposal to make it easier for a breakaway faction of Knesset Members to be granted full independent status in the Knesset. It enabled Netanyahu to divide and severely weaken his then main party political rival, Kadima, which was its main purpose.
In his third government (2013-2015), he deliberately appointed cabinet ministers unsuitable for their portfolios. The most obvious example was the appointment of Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid as finance minister, despite the fact that he had no economic background and ostensibly could have made an excellent foreign minister.
The result, apart from the damage to the economy, was a dramatic erosion in the standing of one of Netanyahu’s potentially toughest rivals for the top job.
In his current fourth government, Netanyahu has added three other methods of concentrating power and weakening the checks and balances. For one, he holds an unprecedented number of government ministries himself. Netanyahu is not only prime minister; he is also foreign minister, communications minister, economics minister and minister for regional cooperation.
Secondly, he exercises a large measure of informal control over the Israeli media, as communications minister, as a result of a system of loose and unresolved arrangements in the Israel Broadcasting Authority and through unclear regulation of the competition.
Thirdly, he has advanced controversial policies by not backing up the regulators, delaying the appointment of senior officials, transferring ministers from their posts, and using articles of the law in ways they were not meant to be used. The most flagrant example is the natural gas framework, where he failed to back the antitrust commissioner and neglected to appoint anyone to replace him after he resigned; appointed Shas leader Arye Deri as economics minister in the hope that he would assume the regulator’s authority as provided by law; and when Deri refused to do so, took over as economics minister himself, intending to make use of the said legal provision by which the framework can be authorized on exceptional security grounds, even though there is no ostensible justification for this.
What is the result of Netanyahu’s leadership style? First, consistent weakening of the civil service, which means an erosion in the quality of socioeconomic services to the public at large. This includes concrete decisions ostensibly not in the public interest – like the emerging natural gas framework.
Secondly, significant degrading of public discourse, since the media today are weaker and more intimidated than ever. This affects the information the public receives and its capacity to form critical and independent judgments, making it easier for the regime to do as it pleases. Indeed, the erosion of independent and critical discourse inevitably means a weaker democracy.
Third, the weakness of the institutional gatekeepers increases the risk of wrongful exploitation of government powers and of corruption in high places.
Fourth, in that there is a systematic weakening of institutions and political actors, it is difficult to develop an alternative leadership to Netanyahu or even to plant the seeds for effective leadership the day after Netanyahu.
Finally, Netanyahu is promoting an undemocratic political culture, getting people used to an authoritarian decision- making style and to undemocratic public discourse.
Dr. Doron Navot, a political scientist at Haifa University, has written extensively on corruption and anti-democratic trends in government.