Netanyahu's changing views on democracy

Netanyahu likes to point out that it is the majority that matters, the only thing that counts in a formal democracy, forgetting that it is also measured by its defense of human and civil rights

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU – ignorant on the subject of immunity? (photo credit: REUTERS)
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU – ignorant on the subject of immunity?
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Since Benjamin Netanyahu was first elected to the Knesset in 1988, his views on democracy have taken a 180° turn.
Whereas in the 12th Knesset he supported the position that a prime minister should not serve for more than two terms (he said that what a prime minister does not do in two terms, he will never do), today he argues that as long as a prime minister enjoys the support of a majority, he can remain in office without any limitation, even if he has been indicted, as long as he has not been convicted of a criminal offense involving turpitude by a final court instance. In the past year, he has proven that in order to attain this majority, which seems to be evading him, he is willing to put Israel through three consecutive rounds of elections (or more, if necessary), at the cost of billions of shekels.
The first time that I realized that Netanyahu apparently feels that he holds a title deed to the premiership was when back in December 2016, in a meeting with the settlers from Amona. After they had been evicted from their homes in Samaria, he told them that he understood exactly how they felt, because he, too, had been evicted from his home – the official residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem – in 1999, after he had lost the election to the premiership to Ehud Barak, and was forced to move to a hotel (forgetting to mention his private residence on 35 Gaza Street, less than a kilometer away from the official residence).
I don’t remember when exactly Netanyahu started declaring to his supporters, in various televised Likud events, “Don’t worry, I shall remain here for a very long time,” but every time I hear him utter it, I tell myself that it is a strange declaration for a democratically elected leader to make.
In addition, especially since the 2015 elections, he has started to treat anyone who challenges his leadership – whether from within the Likud or from outside – as a traitor, or an imbecile, and the act itself as illegitimate.
Netanyahu likes to point out that it is the majority that matters, the only thing that counts in a formal democracy, forgetting that a democracy is also measured by its defense of human and civil rights, the rule of law, and equality under the law. However, one sometimes gets the impression that for Netanyahu it is only a Jewish majority that counts, thus he considers the majority that apparently exists in the current Knesset, which is allegedly against providing him with immunity against standing trial on the basis of his current three indictments, as somehow illegitimate, because it includes 13 Arab MKs.
THERE ARE several problems with this. One is the apparent rejection by Netanyahu of liberal democracy in favor of formal democracy, and a second is Netanyahu’s apparent refusal to accept the equality of Israel’s Arab citizens and their representatives.
Netanyahu was willing to do almost anything to help the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit to get elected to the 21st, 22nd and now the 23rd Knesset, to try to ensure that his political bloc will include at least 61 MKs, including Kahanists if necessary (and let us not forget that back in the 1980s Kahana and his ideology were considered loathsome, by all the political parties, not only left-wing ones). Yet he considers a Blue and White-led government, supported by the Joint (Arab) List from outside the coalition, to be illegitimate and even treasonous.
I am not saying that there aren’t any individual Israeli Arabs, who under article 7a of Basic Law: the Knesset should be barred from running in elections to the Knesset; there are plenty of Kahanist Jews and several extreme Left ones in the same category. But all Arabs and Jews who are not disqualified by the High Court of Justice from being elected to the Knesset are equally entitled to join a coalition or support a minority government from the outside within the framework of their democratic rights.
The current public debate is on whether the current Knesset has the right to set up a House Committee to deliberate Netanyahu’s request that the Knesset decide whether to apply procedural immunity, which would release him from having to stand trial as long as he is prime minister. Besides arguing that the current Knesset cannot deliberate the issue because it is known in advance that a majority will vote against him, Netanyahu also keeps emphasizing that immunity is not only warranted by democracy; it is one of the pillars of democracy.
I suspect that here Netanyahu is simply ignorant on the subject of immunity. The immunity that the Knesset decides whether or not to apply is the MK’s procedural immunity, which is not connected to what the MK says and does within the framework of performing his job. This immunity, if applied, is valid only as long as the MK serves in the Knesset. This type of immunity, which originated in Continental Europe and does not exist in the United States, was originally instituted in order to protect MPs from persecution by the rulers of the country. However, in the past few decades there has been an inclination in countries that do apply it, to limit it to the bare minimum, since it is in breach of the democratic principle of equality before the law between MPs and ordinary citizens. In other words, it is a right that MPs (and MKs) have, but is not one of the pillars of democracy.
If the offenses Netanyahu is suspected of having committed were connected to his substantive immunity, which protects him from investigation and prosecution regarding anything he said or did within the framework of performing his job as an MK (though he can hardly be considered an active MK; he is head of the executive branch!), then automatically he would be immune for life. The purpose of the substantive immunity is to allow the MP to perform his job free of any constraints, and it is one of the foundations of a properly functioning democracy. In Netanyahu’s case, the question is whether his receipt of Champaign, cigars, jewelry and suits, and his conversations and wheeling/dealing with Arnon Mozes and Shaul Elowitz, occurred within the framework of his performing his job as an MK. I would answer this question in the negative, and would conclude that the immunity that Netanyahu is seeking has nothing whatsoever to do with democracy, but rather with his attempt to escape justice.
What is especially worrying about how Netanyahu perceives democracy – and how he uses the term manipulatively – is that in this day and age, when a growing segment of the Israeli population appears not to be committed to democracy, and seems willing to replace the current democratic system with an autocratic one, Israel needs a leader who is committed to democracy and pluralism, as President Reuven Rivlin is, and not one who does not seem averse to turning into an autocrat himself.