Israel is no monarchy, and Netanyahu is no king

For those of us who care about Israel and want it to remain a democracy, we have no choice: We must call this out. This is the role of journalism: ensuring accountability.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Can he work together with his fellow ministers? (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Can he work together with his fellow ministers?
In September 2007, just days after Israel mysteriously bombed what would be identified later as a nuclear reactor in northeast Syria, Benjamin Netanyahu went to a TV studio in Jerusalem.
As head of the opposition, Netanyahu was fighting to bring down then prime minister Ehud Olmert. Nevertheless, and despite being political rivals, Olmert had briefed Netanyahu on the reactor months earlier – both its discovery and the Israeli plans to destroy it. He even received an update the day before the bombing.
Netanyahu also knew that Israel was officially not saying a word, part of a gamble by the government and the IDF that if they remained quiet, Syrian President Bashar Assad would refrain from retaliating. The last thing anyone wanted in Israel was another war, coming so soon after the Second Lebanon War against Hezbollah just a year earlier.
“I was a partner to the operation from the beginning,” Netanyahu said about the bombing that Israel wasn’t even confirming had taken place. He then congratulated Olmert and said that even though he was in the opposition, “when a prime minister does something that I think is important and necessary, I give my support.”
It wasn’t the first time that Netanyahu had revealed a secret. In 1995, also as head of the opposition, he exposed – in a speech in the Knesset – Israel’s military strategy and its redlines for peace with Syria, which were being negotiated at the time by prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
The IDF document appeared to back away from Israel’s demand to maintain an early warning station on the Golan, a key piece of information for Syria to know in the middle of peace talks.
And then there was the mission in 2018 that he sent National Security Council chief Meir Ben-Shabbat on – to brief Rabbi Haim Druckman on an imminent security threat, later presumed to be Hezbollah’s cross-border tunnels which the IDF would launch an operation to destroy just two weeks later. At the time, Netanyahu faced an ultimatum from Naftali Bennett that he would leave the government if he did not get the defense portfolio.
Ben-Shabbat’s mission was a success: he told Druckman about the upcoming mission – very few people knew about it at the time – and in return, Druckman called Bennett and told him to withdraw his ultimatum. Bennett obeyed.
These three incidents (there are more) came to mind on Monday after Netanyahu told the Likud faction meeting that he had never encountered a defense minister like Benny Gantz, who had so politicized the IDF. “I think it’s shameful that Gantz is using the IDF as a tool for political criticism,” Netanyahu said. “No defense minister made such political use of the IDF.”
Netanyahu’s anger was over Gantz’s decision the day before to establish a special Defense Ministry commission to probe the submarine scandal that has entangled the prime minister. It was amusing, though, coming from Netanyahu, a serial politicizer of anything, especially – as shown above – on matters of security.
This was also illustrated back in October, when Netanyahu refused to inform Gantz or Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi about the peace talks with the United Arab Emirates. He later publicly said that he kept them in the dark because he was afraid that they would leak the information to Iran. Wow. The man who broke a strict policy of silence and secrecy after the bombing of Syria’s reactor was afraid that Ashkenazi, the chief of staff during that operation, would leak to Iran? Is there no greater insult?
The cynicism is outrageous. Nothing for this prime minister is off limits. He plays on the assumption that people simply don’t remember anything, or don’t care. He believes that if lies are said enough times they simply become fact. But for those of us who care about Israel and want it to remain a democracy, we have no choice: We must call this out. Letting it slide undermines the country, it undermines Israel’s democratic character, and leads us, inch by inch, toward an autocracy.
I can imagine what some readers are thinking: Here we go again, another column against Netanyahu. But here’s the deal (as President-elect Joe Biden likes to say): We have to call him out. This has nothing to do with his successes (of which there are many), but because this is the role of journalism: to ensure that our leaders are accountable for their words and actions and are constantly being held to a higher standard.
Take as an example what happened on Sunday, when Netanyahu took a secret trip to Saudi Arabia for a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. On the one hand, this is a huge success: Israel’s prime minister meets with MBS in another step toward normalization between the countries. It is an amazing achievement for Israel and, personally, for Netanyahu.
On the other hand, the way in which he manages the government, and all that it has to do with Israel’s emerging ties in the Gulf, go against all norms and standards in a democratic system of government.
When he hid the UAE negotiations and subsequent peace deal from Gantz and Ashkenazi, the country preferred to focus on the positive – peace with an Arab state. When Netanyahu lied about not approving the sale of advanced stealth F-35s to the UAE, we heard excuses that it was for a greater cause.
On Sunday, he again hid information from the defense minister and the foreign minister about his flight to Saudi Arabia. This is irresponsible. What if something had happened to the plane? (Sadly, this does occasionally happen, as we saw this week in the Israeli Air Force.) What if something had happened to Netanyahu? Who knew that he was even there? How would the IDF have even known to go search for him?
When it comes to the IDF, it almost seems like the military has become irrelevant. Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi knew nothing of the trip even though a subordinate of his – the PM’s military aide – was on the plane. Kochavi knew nothing of the peace deal with the UAE or the sale of advanced weapon systems to Abu Dhabi as well.
What is happening in Israel today is beyond the politicization of our nation’s military and security matters. Netanyahu is slowly trying to transform the country into an autocracy, akin to a monarchy. It is all about him, and no one or  anything else. Even on existential matters like peace deals with Arab countries, he includes no one – not the defense minister, not the chief of staff and not the head of Military Intelligence. Only a small group of his political cronies.
He makes the decisions and he acts on them. No one is a partner to what happens in the country. It is just him.
The irony is that as a result of this kind of governing, Israel has struggled throughout the coronavirus crisis, because dealing with a pandemic requires a collaborative effort, with different ministries and government bodies all working together.
As has been proven over the last eight months, however, Netanyahu cannot bring himself to do this. He does not know how to manage, direct or lead a cooperative process within the government. Instead, he closes deals with different politicians and interest groups, and then sets it as policy, ignoring whatever was decided the day before in the corona cabinet that was expressly set up for just that purpose. It is not about what is right for the country or what is right for the people. First and foremost is to do what is right for him.
We see this in the way the deals with Bahrain and the UAE were reached, as well as with his trip this week to Saudi Arabia. We also see this in the security cabinet, which has convened – despite the large number of threats Israel faces – just about five times since the government was formed in May.
In a country with proper governance, the prime minister would hear from his intelligence and military experts beforehand. He would meet with the commander of the Air Force to fully understand the impact that F-35s in the UAE would have on Israel’s security. He would hear from his intelligence experts on the impact peace with Bahrain would have on the Shi’ite population in the tiny country, and what it would mean for further isolating Iran.
But this is not how Netanyahu operates. While he might be good at one-on-one diplomacy, when it comes to running the country, we all see the result: political paralysis, coalition agreements that he serially violates, and a refusal to pass a state budget even though he signed a coalition agreement promising to do so. That the country is in desperate need of a budget in the face of the continuing economic tsunami also means absolutely nothing.
Unfortunately, none of this matters to him. But it should to us. For Israelis who worry about the country’s future and want to ensure that it remains a democracy, this kind of governance cannot be ignored and tolerated.
While a trip to Saudi Arabia and a peace deal with an Arab country are obviously amazing achievements, they can also be achieved while working collaboratively with your partners in the government. And so it should be, because Israel is a democracy. It is not a monarchy.