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Six Feet from Democracy: How Netanyahu’s Coronavirus Policy Tests the Resilience of Israel’s Democratic DNA

On November 4, 1995, tens of thousands of protesters crammed in a square at the heart of Tel Aviv, expressing their approval of the Oslo peace negotiations. As the main speaker, Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin, a champion of democracy and tolerance, hobbled from the square, he was coldly assassinated by a right-wing fanatic.

About 25 years later, on April 19, the same square—now famously known as Rabin Square—could only host two thousand protesters, who were strictly ordered to stand six feet apart. Summoned to fight for democracy, the protesters were not deterred by the hysteria that vacated Israel’s streets. Wearing surgical masks and waving black flags, these worried citizens were united under one message: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu poses a greater threat to Israel than coronavirus.

Netanyahu was recently indicted for breach of trust, fraud, and bribery, as a result of his felonious interventions with the independence of the press and acceptance of exorbitant gifts. The prime minister responded to the coronavirus aggressively, by allowing invasive surveillance and by silencing democratic institutions to increase the efficacy of the fight. The sweeping response elicited fears amongst Israel’s dubious citizens who conjectured that Netanyahu’s actions were not exclusively concerned with coronavirus prevention. Rather, to some, they are part of the PM’s larger, orchestrated attack on Israel’s democracy; his concentration of power is ominous. 

“We are waving a black flag for democracy,” Dana Ben-Naftali, former journalist for the Israeli newspaper Maariv, said in an interview with The Politic. Ben-Naftali felt obligated to join the “black banner” protests together with her sister. “We fear that Netanyahu will take advantage of the coronavirus to consolidate singular power.” 

The coronavirus hit Israel during its most unstable political situation in history, creating a fertile ground for the realization of these fears. In what can best be described as a democratic nightmare, the Israelis have trudged to the polls three times in the past year. Each national election ended with inconclusive results. 

In Israel’s 120-seat parliamentary system, coalition agreements between the elected parties are the gist of forming a government. In all three rounds, in April 2019, September 2019 and March 2020 respectively, neither bloc—the first composed of right-wing and ultra-orthodox parties, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, and the other consisting of several center-left parties, headed by Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz—could amass a majority of seats. 

Israel’s political limbo was not caused by differing views on the Israeli-Arab conflict or socio-economic policy, as one might expect. In fact, Benny Gantz, a former commander-in-chief, does not significantly differ from Netanyahu in his policy views. He ran his campaign as a fight for the character of Israel as a pluralistic and democratic state, a vision undermined by the Netanyahu leadership. The message attracted Israelis of all political views, including Ben-Naftali, weary of Netanyahu’s attack on institutional checks and balances and his divisive rhetoric.

Gantz was unable to form a coalition due to the reluctance of the secular right-wing “Israel Beiteinu” to sit with the “Joint List,” the major Arab party, in the same coalition. Nonetheless, Gantz still received a thin majority recommendation of 61 seats, with parties ranging from the political right to left, all eager to end Netanyahu’s reign. On March 16, Gantz was tasked by President Rivlin to form the next government, sparking hopes for a political upheaval. 

But the hopeful were too quick to eulogize Netanyahu, a master of political manipulation. “As a leader who rules by fear, the coronavirus constitutes a perfect excuse,” said Ben-Naftali. With the emergence of Coronavirus, Netanyahu’s ongoing fight against democracy was gifted with a new guise, one that dangerously obscures his disdain for democracy by representing his policies as justified and as proactive responses to the novel threat. 

Only a day after the Israeli President gave Benny Gantz the mandate to form the next government, Netanyahu’s speaker of the Israeli parliament, also known as the Knesset, Yuli Edelstein, blocked an attempt to vote him out, citing the health ministry regulation on the gathering of 10 people or more. While the Israeli Supreme Court deemed the act unconstitutional, Edelstein initially refused to back down, sparking the wave of protests. The following day, he obstructed the assembly of the Knesset altogether, essentially shutting down the legislative branch in direct opposition to the judiciary ruling.

The majority opposition camp, highly heterogeneous in its political views yet united by its common despise of Netanyahu, was expected to pass laws challenging Netanyahu’s ability to form a government; these include, for example, instituting a term-limit and prohibiting indicted ministers from holding office. 

Stimulating further fury, Netanyahu’s appointed Justice Minister Amir Ohana, who was vocal about his support for granting immunity to the indicted PM, closed most of Israel’s courts on March 14. Mere hours after the declaration, Netanyahu’s trial, scheduled to commence a week later, was postponed to May 24th.

The speaker of the Knesset eventually succumbed to pressure and reluctantly resigned on March 25, paving the way for the election of Benny Gantz as the new speaker of the Knesset. Nominating himself for the position with the support of the Netanyahu camp  mere days after Edelstein’s departure, Gantz has forsaken the plan to legislate Netanyahu out of office.  

Gantz drew widespread criticism for breaking his central election promise and cooperating with the prime minister. Furious and eager to change Gantz’s mind, the protesters gathered in Rabin Square. 

Yet their attempts were in vain. On April 20, Benny Gantz solved Israel’s political hodgepodge and joined a unity government led by Netanyahu until October 2021. Netanyahu will thereafter serve as vice PM under Benny Gantz for another year and a half. 

While defending his expediency as a national necessity during the coronavirus, Gantz has essentially shielded the indicted Netanyahu, who will face the court of justice from a position of power as a prime minister or vice prime minister. Ben-Naftali posits that Gantz would not have surrendered so easily were Netanyahu not cynically exploiting the public paranoia to pressure Gantz into forming an emergency government. 

Omri Hochfeld, 19, who is currently completing his mandatory military service in Israel, worries about the future of Israel as a democratic state and attended several of the protests. Gantz’s 180-degree shift was nothing less than overturning the majority’s decision in Hochfeld’s eyes. 

“It was the accomplishment of Bibi’s [Netanyahu] anti-democratic dream” said Hochfeld, “Netanyahu exaggerated a true threat and received his want.” 

Similarly, Yafa Mendelson, 78,  who voted for Gantz in all three election rounds merely to drive Netanyahu out of Israel’s political system, said “[her] vote was hijacked,” in an interview with The Politic. Mendelson was born before Israel’s establishment, and is confident Netanyahu is Israel’s greatest internal threat in history. 

Yet, Netanyahu is convinced he is the manifestation of the majority. He often referred to the attempt to replace him as a “coup,” due to the possibility of a coalition that includes the Arab “Joint List,” reflecting his disregard of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens. “He delegitimizes a whole sect,” said Hochfeld. In other words, Netanyahu believes in democracy insofar as the demographic is Jewish. 

Due to the demands of the coronavirus, Netanyahu also executed emergency powers enabling Israel’s cabinet, composed of the ministers appointed by Netanyahu, to determine regulations and thus circumvent the Knesset. Then he narrowed the decision-making circle even further. 

Netanyahu often announces new regulations before they are discussed in the cabinet. The cabinet’s WhatsApp chat group reflects their annoyance with this recurring pattern. Bezalel Smotrich, the transportation minister, lamented that “it isn’t clear why we need a cabinet meeting at all if everything’s been decided and announced,” immediately after Netanyahu’s live broadcast in which he declared the relaxation of the regulations on April 21. 

“It reminds me of other regimes, where the leader cannot be criticized,” said Hochfeld regrettably. 

Netanyahu’s concurrent attack on the coronavirus and democracy has extended beyond undermining the watchdogs of Israeli democracy and consolidating power; it unprecedentedly gave anti-democratic powers to the Shin-Bet, Israel’s internal security agency. Using his emergency powers, on March 16 Netanyahu proclaimed that the cabinet will approve the use of counter-terrorism surveillance technology to track citizens using cellular data, as the number of cases in Israel reached 298 and public concern grew. 

His actions far exceeded those of other democracies and their specialized organizations. In an interview to the Israeli site Ynet, the famous NSA whistleblower and privacy advocate Edward Snowden addressed the allegedly innocuous means to mitigate the spread of the virus. “It is difficult to grasp how this thing has not aroused a big public storm,” he said, flabbergasted by the relative indifference of Israel’s citizens to this attack on their fundamental democratic freedoms. 

This potential slippery slope, possibly leading to insidious governmental encroachment upon civil freedoms, ought to raise major concerns addressing privacy and the potential abuse of surveillance technology. The government essentially enabled the Shin-Bet, a sub-governmental organization with neither direct accountability to the populace nor transparency requirements, to monitor every Israeli resident without the approval of the Knesset. 

“I might have been convinced of the necessity of such methods if I were assured it was in good hands,” said Ben-Naftali worriedly, “but I do not trust Netanyahu’s integrity.” 

Israel’s other governmental institutions, fortunately, are sturdy and functioning independently and swiftly. The Supreme Court ruled that the Shin-Bet cannot conduct invasive surveillance without Knesset oversight. Moreover, the public gathering restrictions do not forbid protests conducted in compliance with health regulations, and Israel’s vibrant democratic culture has not failed to rise to the occasion. Earlier in March, about half a million citizens joined an online protest on Facebook, voicing their concerns with Edelstein’s actions. 

Yet it is unclear how long Israel’s democracy can fend off the ambush waged by the Netanyahu camp, firm in its position to squash what they view as an illegitimate elite: democracy’s watch dogs. For citizens like Hochfeld, Mendelson and Ben-Naftali, Gantz’s surrender makes the attack all the more worrying, legitimizing Netanyahu’s power grab and coining his definitions of Israel and democracy. 

Netanyahu views democracy as unchallenged majority rule, led exclusively by Israel’s Jewish citizenry. In the eyes of his fervent supporters, the judiciary and the executive are mere obstacles for the expression of the people’s voice. This grossly undemocratic paradigm recently met a newer parasite in the heart of Israeli society, coronavirus, and exploited it to advance its agenda. 

The attack on the independent functioning of Israel’s institutions is worryingly similar to historical turning points, when democracies gradually and inconspicuously begin to erode. Soon, “King Bibi” may be more than a provocative term that encapsulates his authoritarian style, but a reality.