Think About It: How committed is the Israeli public to democracy?

AMONG THE many disturbing statements I have heard in the last year relating to the democracy issue, I found the following two especially disturbing:

IF IT takes another round of elections to get the Likud to act, let it be.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
IF IT takes another round of elections to get the Likud to act, let it be.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As we approach a third round of elections in a single year, one cannot avoid thinking about the state of Israeli democracy in general, and the commitment of the Israeli public to democracy in particular.
One must be blind not to see that in Israel today only a minority, even if a significant minority, is committed to liberal democracy – i.e., to a democracy that is based not only on majority rule, but also on human rights, minority rights, the rule of law, and freedom of expression.
Israel was never a perfect liberal democracy. However, in the last decade there has been a serious erosion in the belief in, and support of, liberal democracy – first and foremost among its leaders. I would go so far as to say that in Israel’s last serving government (the 34th), around half the ministers (especially the ultra-Orthodox ones) did not support most of the liberal democratic principles. In the current transition government, the situation is worse.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself expresses support for such principles when it suits him, but constantly acts contrary to these principles whenever they conflict with his personal interests – as when he mercilessly attacks the Arab population and its leaders, all the law enforcement institutions and those standing at their head, and most of the media. This doesn’t mean that the Arab population, the law enforcement institutions and the media are above criticism – far from it; but Netanyahu’s criticism of them has assumed clear antidemocratic proportions.
Any attempt to find exact figures regarding the degree of support by Israel’s citizens for democracy is bound to fail, because if you ask people whether they believe in democracy, most of them answer in the affirmative, even if they not only reject liberal democracy but also believe that a Jewish majority is the only one that counts, or even a majority of Jewish men only (especially but not only among the ultra-Orthodox). The number of liberal democrats among Israel’s Arab citizens is probably even smaller than among its Jewish citizens, though all of them strongly support democracy when it comes to their own individual, communal and national rights.
AMONG THE many disturbing statements I have heard in the last year relating to the democracy issue, I found the following two especially disturbing:
“Bibi should not be put on trial because of cigars and champaign. On the contrary, he should be given a credit card by the state to purchase as many cigars and as much champaign as he fancies” (a participant in the recent pro-Bibi and anti-law enforcement demonstration held in Tel-Aviv).
“If Bibi will be indicted on delusionary accusations, millions of people will go out to the streets to demonstrate. They will not allow this to happen” (David Amsalem, chairman of the Knesset Internal Affairs Committee, in January 2019).
The statement that suggests that Netanyahu should be granted an open credit card at the state’s expense was made by a hotheaded private person at the margin of an extremist demonstration, but was not condemned by the prime minister or anyone on his behalf.
The statement is based on the following assumptions: that Netanyahu is so great a leader that he deserves anything he wishes, irrespective of what the law says. In other words: he is above the law, and therefore he should not be put on trial on any charges whatsoever. Why is he such a great leader? Because he is the best prime minister Israel has ever had, and Israel “never had it so good.”
Of course, no democracy can tolerate such an approach. The prime minister in every parliamentary democracy is considered as “first among equals” in his government, but is subject to the law like every other citizen (though he may be granted immunity under specific circumstances listed in the MKs immunity law), and his private expenses, which are not directly connected to the performance of his job, should be paid for from his own personal funds, even if some believe that he is “the greatest prime minister Israel ever had.” Whether he deserves this title is a matter of opinion. But even if he were perfect – an open credit card is not the way a democracy shows its appreciation.
Of course, we do not know how many Netanyahu fans would actually support the idea that he should be given an open credit card at the state’s expense rather than be left to the goodwill of wealthy acquaintances and greedy media moguls, and end up with criminal charges. However, it is reasonable to assume that most of them support the premises on which the idea is based, and these are democratically problematic by their very nature.
Back in the beginning of January, Amsalem was scolded both by the state-attorney and the attorney-general for his statement about millions going out to the streets. Today Amsalem is communications minister (“thus shall be done for the man whom the king delights to honor”), and he is careful not to incite millions to go out to demonstrate. However, he continuously speaks of the fabricated accusations against Netanyahu that, according to him, are all based on false evidence attained by inappropriate means, from which he concludes that not only should Netanyahu not stand trial, but that the indictments are a sham.
One could say that Amsalem is entitled to his opinion. However, as a government minister (even though only a temporary one) he declared that he would “be loyal to the State of Israel and its laws,” and the procedures held before a person is indicted and put on trial all form part of the law. Amsalem certainly has the right to demand an investigation of any faults that may have occurred in the course of the investigations against Netanyahu, and the decision to indict him, but for a minister to declare the whole legal procedure, involving the police, the State Attorney’s Office and the attorney-general, to be invalid, without any proof, is completely contrary to his declaration of allegiance and expressly undemocratic. And “if the cedars fell in flames, what would the mosses do?”
In fact, the case against Netanyahu reflects a repeated pattern of conduct, related to his love of luxuries he is too stingy to pay for himself, and to his totally perverted relations with the media. Each offense in itself might appear petty, but together (including events of a similar nature that were left out of the indictments) they portray a very disturbing reality unbefitting a democratic leader.
I have concentrated on manifestations of contempt for liberal democracy all connected to Netanyahu personally, but could easily have brought examples relating to other political parties and leaders.
However, it is Netanyahu and the Likud who have been in power for over 10 years running, and it is they who are responsible, together with their coalition partners in the 34th government, for the concerted attack against many aspects of Israel’s liberal democracy, which parts of the public have avidly devoured.
This is one of the reasons that a change is required, even if only a change in the Likud leadership. The Likud used to support liberal democracy in the past; it ought to revert to doing so.