The quip ‘a week is a long time in politics’ is widely attributed to former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson. In Israeli politics, a week can feel like an eternity and, more recently, it has become a protracted knife-edge drama that has everyone on the edge of their seat.
Depending on where one looks, there is, on the one hand, a reason for grave concern for the future of Israel as a liberal democracy, and even as a democracy at all. On the other hand, there is a reason for cautious optimism, since, for the first time, the previously silent pro-democratic progressive forces have abandoned their highly crowded fence-sitting show and, for several weeks, instead been taking to the streets throughout the country to make their voices heard in protesting the Netanyahu government’s assault on the judiciary’s independence.
One of the most controversial aspects of this judicial coup is the shameless and brutal attempt to “rescue” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from his corruption trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, as if it was being conducted by foreign forces who had kidnapped him and made him the victim of a show trial, and not being carried out through the country’s due legal process.
On the eve of his trip to London for yet another needless and futile trip abroad and a cursory meeting with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak – a trip that was really all about enjoying another luxurious weekend with his wife at the expense of the Israeli taxpayer – Netanyahu, with the help of his allies, passed a law that shields him from being declared unfit for high office. Like thieves in the night, albeit in the early hours of the morning, 61 of the Knesset’s 120 lawmakers voted in favor of yet another law with Netanyahu’s fingerprints all over it; one that effectively prevents the attorney general from declaring him unfit to serve as prime minister.
If anyone required further proof that Netanyahu – along with several other ministers – is unfit to hold public office, let alone lead the country, the last few weeks have provided more than ample evidence. The very idea that a defendant in a corruption trial is running the country is most perturbing. In the eyes of many, it makes him unfit to remain in post while his trial is ongoing and it would be reasonable to expect that, until the court reaches a verdict, Netanyahu should be suspended from any position of power, let alone from involvement in any activity that might influence his trial’s outcome. Instead, with the tail wind from his far-right and religious coalition, he is pressing ahead with legislation that seeks to normalize corruption at the heart of government.
It is only through the pressure exerted on Netanyahu’s coalition government by the protests, including the voices of captains of industry and the military reservists’ refusal to serve, that the headlong rush to enshrine this extreme antidemocratic legislation has been slowed. However, under a law passed last month that amends the Basic Law on Government, a prime minister is only declared unfit either if he or she declares themselves physically or mentally unfit to fulfill the role or the Cabinet, backed by three-quarters of the ministers, declares them unfit due to health issues.
Thus, in their audacity, Israeli lawmakers have effectively prevented the attorney general from declaring Netanyahu unfit to serve in the event of a conflict of interest between his prime ministerial role and his position as defendant in a trial, as stated in the signed agreement with Netanyahu of 2020 that bars him from involvement in changes to the judicial system. It is an agreement that was not only signed by him, but it also got the stamp of approval of the High Court. It states that he must “avoid any involvement in matters concerning the activities of the Judicial Appointments Committee and in all matters concerning the justices of the Supreme Court and the Jerusalem District Court.” This agreement did not come out of the blue, but it makes perfect sense considering the fact that Netanyahu is himself being tried on criminal charges.
Not surprisingly, petitions were immediately issued to the Supreme Court, whose president has demanded that Netanyahu explain how he will avoid this conflict of interest. A few hours after dropping this constitutional bomb, signaling that as long as he is at the helm there will not be any respite to the antidemocratic legislation that is preparing the way for a messianic dictatorship, he flew to London for a city break, only to be received by thousands of protesters over the course of that weekend.
This piece of legislation, the first move in the government’s plan to demolish the justice system and usurp most of its powers and the first to go through all of its readings, reveals the true intention of Netanyahu and his coalition. Not only do they want to put themselves above the law, but they aim to declare themselves as the law.
Not surprisingly, this has further enraged the protesters on the streets. It was the boldness as much as the content of the new law that has made it clearer than ever that only through perpetual protest and civil disobedience can the most dangerous and ill-intentioned government in the country’s short history be stopped.
By now, the battle lines have been drawn and no one is in any doubt that Netanyahu is prepared to sacrifice the good of the country for his own sake. He might, or at least should, now be regretting that he did not sign a plea bargain when it was offered to him, but that train has left the station. His incitements against political rivals, and for all means and purposes his encouragement of physical clashes between his supporters and those who oppose them, knowing that this will likely lead to violence and possibly bloodshed, is a worse sin than the corruption crimes he stands accused of.
His decision to pause the legislation after the backlash he encountered on sacking his defense minister was not made in good faith for the sake of entering a national dialogue, but was rather just another of his manipulative ploys to sedate the opposition. Should the protesters fall for any further such deceptions and halt their actions, they might find the master manipulator of Israeli politics continuing to dismantle Israeli democracy under pressure from his messianic right-wing coalition partners, not out of conviction but out of fear of conviction.