Israel’s democratic immunity is under threat

Israel’s democratic system continues to erode as Netanyahu does everything and anything to avoid prison.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the evidence hearing stage for his trial over alleged corruption crimes, at the Jerusalem district court on April 5, 2021 [Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP]

With clear reluctance and no choice, President Reuven Rivlin has tasked prime minister and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu with forming Israel’s next government for the fourth time in two years. Following four elections with inconclusive results, Netanyahu now has 28 days – with a possible 14-day extension – to form a government but fewer than the 61-seat Knesset majority to do so.

If the task was challenging following the three previous rounds, this time it appears almost impossible. One man, Benjamin Netanyahu, has repeatedly stood in the way of joining the pieces of the puzzle to put together a stable, functioning government. As New Hope party Chair Gideon Saar put it: If Netanyahu steps aside and lets another Likud figure lead the party, whether health minister Yuli Edelstein, finance minister Israel Katz or Knesset member Nir Barkat, a government could be formed easily and quickly.

Saar, whose party won six seats in the March 23 elections, has contemptuously dismissed Netanyahu’s plea that he return to the fold of the Likud. His suggestion of placing someone else at the party’s helm reflects the views of many on the political right and centre.

The two ultra-Orthodox parties with their combined 16 seats are closely allied with Netanyahu – as long as he holds the reins of the Likud and the keys to the government and responds generously to their demands. However, their loyalty to the religious constituencies they represent is greater than their commitment to any secular politician and they would presumably back the Likud even if Netanyahu were no longer in charge.

As expected, Saar’s call for Netanyahu to choose the good of the state over his personal welfare and step down so that the state can move forward after two years of political paralysis fell on deaf ears. A decision to bow out would deprive Netanyahu of the only bargaining chip he holds in his prolonged battle against Israel’s law enforcement authorities, state prosecution and the courts.

As a defendant in a criminal trial on charges of corruption, the power of his office, the leadership of the ruling party and his public standing are the only cards Netanyahu has with which to negotiate the price of his resignation. For example, many in the corridors of power have for months been toying with the idea of appointing him president to replace Rivlin, whose term ends in July.

This high office, although largely ceremonial, could guarantee Netanyahu a pardon and make his bribery indictment go away. His agreement to disappear forever from political life could smooth over what is likely to be a highly controversial plea bargain deal to avoid imprisonment.

Absent the feasibility of forming a government, the option of a continued deadlock – with elections held every few months – could be Netanyahu’s best bet. He would not be the first leader in the world willing to stop at nothing to evade the long arm of the law.

The leader of a far more established and veteran democracy than Israel, US President Richard Nixon, went to great lengths to cover up criminal wrongdoing in a bid to remain in office. More recently, President Donald Trump incited against law enforcement and judicial authorities whenever suspicions arose that he was abusing his power.

As head of the Knesset opposition 12 years ago, Netanyahu himself set the norm according to which “a prime minister neck-deep in investigations does not have a moral and public mandate to make fateful decisions for the State of Israel.” He was speaking of then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who was under investigation on suspicion of corruption, urging him to step down.

Indeed, the Israeli public took away the mandate it had given Olmert to determine their fate as long as he was under criminal suspicion. His Kadima Party appointed then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni to replace him and maintained its political strength although it subsequently lost the 2009 elections to the Likud led by Netanyahu.

No one could imagine at the time that the Likud would repeatedly anoint a leader neck-deep in criminal indictment who abuses his office to undermine the prosecution and the media. What is more, some 1.3 million Israelis gave their vote to the Likud and its radical right-wing allies, led by racists Bezalel Smotrich, who posted on Twitter that he will ensure that Arabs who do not recognise that the Land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel “will not stay here”.

Absent defectors from the opposition benches – yet another sign of rot to which Israelis have been introduced in recent years – giving him the 61-seat Knesset majority he needs, Netanyahu would have no qualms about dragging Israelis to a fifth election in the coming months, although the results are unlikely to alter significantly the balance of power between supporters of one-man rule and supporters of the rule of law. Over 12 years of consecutive rule, Netanyahu has managed to erode the immune system of Israeli society and neuter the guardians of its democracy. The disease is getting worse and a magical cure has yet to be discovered.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.