How Naziyahu mainstreamed his dark, anti-democratic vision for 'Israel'

How Netanyahu mainstreamed his dark, anti-democratic vision for Israel

By attacking the judiciary, bringing extremists into his coalition, and trying to subvert voting rights, Benjamin Netanyahu has presented a dark vision of an anti-democratic future for Israeli politics.

By Harry Reis

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech at Likud headquarters on election night, Tel Aviv, September 17, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech at Likud headquarters on election night, Tel Aviv, September 17, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Benjamin Netanyahu emerged from September’s repeat elections a failure. Denied his desired majority, the prime minister’s only real hope of retaining power now depends on building a national unity government with Blue and White, a party that has pledged never to sit with him so long as the cloud of pending indictment looms over his head.

But the stakes of the election outcome are far higher than the political survival of one man. Throughout these last two rounds of forced elections, Israelis glimpsed an anti-democratic future – one controlled by a narrow immunity-annexationist coalition that would have protected Netanyahu as a man above the law. While Netanyahu failed to emerge with the majority required to enact that dark future, his irregular maneuvers over the course of the past two elections — attacking the judiciary, inviting extremists into his coalition, and undermining voting rights — upended a number of key democratic norms.

Elections as a legal ploy

First, let’s remember how we got here. Netanyahu’s 2018 decision to dissolve his government and call elections to be held in April of this year was a legal strategy intended to preempt, delay, and evade indictment on three open corruption cases against him. In so doing, Netanyahu exploited the tools of democracy to help him escape justice, seeking to strengthen his hand against prosecutors by renewing his mandate from the public, while pursuing a new government that would deliver a special law granting him immunity from prosecution.

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Netanyahu and his Likud party emerged from the April elections with only a slight lead over his main opponents, Blue and White — a troop of ex-IDF generals led by former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and the secularist former television anchor Yair Lapid. Netanyahu’s desperate efforts to assemble a narrow, right-wing government were thwarted by his hawkish former aide, Avigdor Liberman, who refused to join a government with ultra-Orthodox parties. Under Israeli law, when the frontrunner fails to form a government, the president should tap the next candidate who is likely to secure a majority in the Knesset.

But still facing corruption charges and denied a path to immunity, Netanyahu would not countenance his rival, Gantz, getting his due. Instead, he whipped the votes to have the Knesset dissolve itself, triggering new elections in September.

Subverting the judiciary

Netanyahu’s legal woes determined much of his wild electioneering throughout 2019’s two election campaigns. In February, two months out from the elections, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced his intention to indict Netanyahu, pending a hearing. This sparked the prime minister’s Trump-like lashing out against the judiciary itself, and over the course of the campaign, he called the case against him a “witch hunt” and a conspiracy of the “left” designed to “to topple the right-wing government” which he led. He spared no vitriol in attacking the standard-bearers of justice — not just Mandelblit (whom he had appointed), but the state prosecutor, the Israel Police, and, of course, the media. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Esther Hayut called his campaign against the judiciary “degrading, lowly and unrestrained.”

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