Is Netanyahu moving towards autocracy?

In my opinion Israel’s “Reichstag fire” could come about as a result of a clear Netanyahu victory in the approaching elections

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to supporters following the announcement of exit polls in Israel's election at his Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv on March 3, 2020.  (photo credit: AMIR COHEN - REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to supporters following the announcement of exit polls in Israel's election at his Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv on March 3, 2020.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN - REUTERS)
I am currently reading a book about US President Donald Trump, by Masha Gessen, an American writer of Jewish Russian origin, which she wrote last year under the title Surviving Autocracy. She enumerates the various stages that Trump has gone through since his election in 2016 towards autocracy, wondering when he will reach a critical point which she terms “the Reichstag fire” – referring to the burning of the German parliament on February 27, 1933 – the point at which a “state of exception” was declared in Germany. A state of exception is a state of emergency which is based in the sovereign’s ability to transcend the rule of law in the name of the public good.
On page 9 of her book, Gessen speaks of the fact that when leaders start moving towards autocracy the institutions of democracy are incapable of stopping them, mentioning the cases of current day Russia, Hungary and Israel, where, according to her, this is what has been happening, and she wonders whether the US under Trump was moving in the same direction. As mentioned above, the book was written in 2019, and published before the presidential elections in which Trump lost to Joe Biden, so that at least for the time being the worrying process has been cut short.
I do not believe that Israel will necessarily reach the “Reichstag fire” stage, or that our democratic institutions are no longer capable of dealing with Netanyahu’s increasingly autocratic conduct, but this does not mean that we are not heading in that direction, or that “the people” in Israel will save democracy through their vote, as the American people did on November 3. A majority of the Jews in Israel still prefer Netanyahu to any alternative leader.
Nevertheless, in my opinion Israel’s “Reichstag fire” could come about as a result of a clear Netanyahu victory in the approaching elections, which will enable him to form another narrow, right wing-religious government over which he will hold tight control, and which will pass all the necessary legislation to stop the trial against him and to emasculate the Supreme Court, will take measures that will further weaken the Knesset as overseer of the government, and enable the appointment of new gatekeepers – including a new Attorney General – who will be partial to Netanyahu, and turn a blind eye to all his foibles and irregular acts.
The decision of Minister of Defense and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz to appoint a committee of examination within his Ministry – in accordance with the provisions of the law – to look into alleged irregularities in the way decisions were taken concerning the purchase of new submarines and navy vessels for the protection of the gas rigs within Israel’s exclusive economic zone, is, in fact, a desperate attempt to open up a formal discussion on a wider phenomenon that reflects Netanyahu’s autocratic practices over foreign affairs and defense issues. Netanyahu systematically fails to involve the IDF, and his Ministers of Defense and Foreign Affairs.
 Setting up a committee of examination was the only option left at this stage to keep the door open to such a discussion. This comes after Netanyahu managed – with the help of Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin – to block the possibility of establishing a parliamentary committee of inquiry on the issue.
Netanyahu is known to object to the establishment of a national commission of inquiry on any issue that concerns him directly or indirectly. In other words, this was the last opportunity to involve Israel’s democratic procedures in an attempt to stop recurrent Netanyahu autocratic conduct.
In my opinion, the questions of whether or not Netanyahu had financial gain for himself in mind when so acted, or even whether he sincerely believes that he is acting in the best interest of the people when he decides to circumvent the required procedures (a sort of mini “state of exception”), are much less important than how decisions were taken.
THIS WOULD be regarding how many submarines and what sort of above-surface defense vessels Israel should purchase, at what price and from whom, and whether Netanyahu may consent to the supply of sophisticated arms systems to various Middle East states by Israel’s allies, without consulting and receiving a green light from the IDF and Israel’s intelligence agencies. Netanyahu considers discussion of these issues a plot against himself personally, rather than a desperate attempt to save Israel’s democratic institutions and procedures from the likes of him.
I have been closely following Trump’s refusal to concede defeat to Joe Biden in the recent American presidential election on grounds of unsubstantiated allegations of fraud. This led me to realize while listening to Rudy Giuliani’s wacky press conference on November 20, that contrary to Gessen’s prediction the American democratic system and institutions have managed, with the support of a 6-million-person majority of the American voters, to put an end – at least for the time being – to Trump’s autocratic ambitions and practices.
In Israel, the democratic institutions and the disunited majority of Israeli voters have – so far – not been successful in warding off Netanyahu’s refusal to accept the conclusive results of three successive elections, which indicated that the only stable government Israel can have today is not a narrow right wing-religious government, but an authentic, partitive national unity government. This would resemble the one established in Israel in 1984, which both sides entered in good faith – unlike the current emergency government – that lacks good faith on Netanyahu’s part and minimal political sophistication on Gantz’s part.
There is something perverted in Netanyahu’s repeated efforts to try to derive different results from a given demographic reality. In the last three elections, Netanyahu did everything in his power to gain the necessary 61 Knesset seats to form a narrow right wing-religious government, by encouraging – sometimes by highly questionable means – all the non-haredi religious parties to run together, so as not to lose a single vote in support of him. Three times he failed. Towards the fourth elections, which will without doubt take place sometime in the first six months of 2021, he is trying to split the United Arab List, and bring one of its components –- Ra’am headed by MK Mansour Abbas – to support him in return for budgets and other perks.
No one knows whether Netanyahu would be going to so much trouble – four successive elections, and political manipulations which can form the basis for a modern version of Machiavellianism – if it weren’t for his approaching trial on criminal charges. This seems to constitute a major, if not the main motivating force, behind all his decisions and actions in the last year or two. Unfortunately, the Israeli democracy is paying an exorbitant price for the turmoil being caused.
Eventually, one way or another, an end will come to Netanyahu’s onslaught on the rule of law and the democratic institutions. The questions are when it will happen, how it will happen, how much damage will have been caused by the time it happens, and whether the damage will be reversible.
I believe that at this stage it very much depends on the political path that Yamina leader Naftali Bennett will decide to take towards the elections. Given the demographic reality, how the Center-Left will get organized seems less consequential.