Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that he is the victim of a “coup” this week as he stands trial on numerous counts of corruption. It is his latest attempt to undermine the rule of law.
Talk of a “coup” has brought low the once proud Likud Party that used to stand for the law and believed in the judicial system. Today’s rhetoric trends toward what we are used to hearing in other, darker regimes.
“The prosecution is on a witch hunt,” claimed Netanyahu. “They were looking for me. Whitewashed investigations, conducted illegal searches and erased recordings. And the worst of all, it blackmailed witnesses with severe threats to the point of breaking up families,” Netanyahu said at a press conference. ”This is what an attempted coup looks like.”
What he calls a “coup” is actually a court case that has moved at a snail’s pace and which he has exploited over and over to get electoral support, weaving stories of being persecuted even as he remains in power. His attempt to cling to power is unprecedented in Israeli history. Now staring down the possibility of a fifth election, he will do whatever he can to remain in the Prime Minister’s Office. If there is no court system left when he is gone, no trust in institutions and a country divided against itself, he will see it as a victory.
The dangerous rhetoric of describing a slow-moving prosecution that has inevitably and finally brought him to trial a “coup” is rhetoric he purposely uses. Netanyahu is a student of history. He is not in his heart a demagogue. He is known to choose his words carefully and to govern by pragmatism. This makes his use of dangerous terms like “coup” even more problematic, because he knows how this inflames.
Setting part of the electorate, the roughly 25% of the country that vote for him, against the judicial system, is a cold calculated move. The goal is to prepare the ground for his losing the court case. This has some commonalities with what former US president Donald Trump did, preparing the way to undermine the US election last year so he could claim it was rigged.
It appears many Western democracies are today electing leaders who are eroding the institutions that once made democracy a strong form of government. The former US president never conceded the election. Netanyahu has used lockdowns and crises in the past to cling to power. In other democracies, decent politicians tend to resign when they lose a vote. That is how Theresa May and David Cameron left office, having failed at key votes.
But Netanyahu does not believe that anyone else can ever run Israel. He would prefer to leave office with a judiciary that is not trusted by a third of the country, than leave office with institutions stronger than when he entered. In this, he shares unfortunate commonalities with regimes that do not have a free judiciary, press or law enforcement system.
On the positive side, Israel has weathered authoritarian tendencies in the past. The once all-powerful Labor Party clung to power and abused it when it controlled the country between 1948 and 1977. It was eventually pushed out by Menachem Begin in what was known as the “mahapach” – revolution.
Israel has suffered war and grievous terrorist campaigns against it as well as periods of relative diplomatic isolation. It has seen massive public protests against leaders, peace initiatives and has even weathered warnings of internal strife. It has moved forward and, despite the rhetoric of those like Netanyahu, the Israeli public loves democracy and prefers it to other forms of government.
Unfortunately, however, there are some in Israel who would undermine our democracy, from the all-male religious theocratic parties to other political elements that refuse to have internal primaries, or the far-right whose supporters often act outside the rule of law in the West Bank.
At the heart of Israel is a public composed of Jews and Arabs, Druze, Circassians, Muslims and Christians, who adore this state and will work to preserve it – even if the current leader openly works to cause it damage.