One of the most critical decisions for Israel’s future was buried this past week under a stack of apparently more pressing matters, ranging from continuous terrorist incidents and the banning of books from the curriculum of secondary schools, to the interrogation and indictment of the suspected perpetrators of the burning of the Dawabshe family. Sixty-five percent of the members of the Likud Central Committee voted to approve Benjamin Netanyahu’s request to bring forward the primaries for the leadership of the Likud to next month in order “to push back the next elections [currently scheduled for 2019], stabilize the coalition and strengthen the Likud”.
This is not the first time that the Prime Minister has seen fit to alter the timetable for the internal primaries within the ruling party. But in his rush to secure yet another (fifth) term in office, his present gambit raises serious questions about how long duly elected leaders can remain in office without irreparably damaging the essential pillars of the regimes they control. A brief survey of key historical and comparative cases provides a resounding answer: not long at all.
For this reason, most established democracies have mandated term limits for elected officials — and especially for those at the helm of government (the Twenty-Second Amendment to the United States Constitution confining presidents to two terms is a case in point). Indeed, democracies — even in their most formal embryonic presentations — have always been defined by their ability to change leaders peacefully via the ballot box. Since the underlying assumption is that free competition is the key to orderly transition, granting undue advantage to a particular group or worldview is frowned upon. The imposition of constitutionally-grounded limits on incumbents is a proven mechanism for assuring leadership rotation. Much more significantly, it is the most important means for sustaining democratic vibrancy over time.
Most of the world’s longest reigning leaders have been repeatedly reelected (with vast majorities) for decades. Take, for example, Paul Biya, who is now in his fortieth year as President of Cameroon; or Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, who is completing his thirty-sixth year in office; or, for that matter, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who has been presiding over his devastated country for thirty-five years. The list of those serving more than twenty years in office — with the exception of Ali Khamenei of Iran and Hun Sen of Cambodia — is composed of leaders of relatively new electoral regimes in Africa (including Uganda, Chad, Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, Sudan and the Gambia), Eastern Europe (notably Belarus) and the new Asian Republics of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. These states have come to embody tyranny, repression and constant human immiseration under the guise of electoral competition.
Taking a lesson from these sorry cases, many newly-minted democratic regimes have imposed term limits for incumbents in high office. This is true of most Latin American and Asian electoral democracies, as well as Africa’s more robust democratic regimes (such as South Africa and Ghana). Most members of post-war Europe have similar arrangements.
All of these countries have internalized the message that longevity in office and democratic stability do not go hand in hand. Limiting the opposition over time inevitably invites civil unrest (today’s internal upheaval in Burundi revolves precisely around the unconstitutional refusal of President Pierre Nkurunziza to step down after completing his two terms). Long-serving elected officials deepen control over the bureaucracy and narrow its creativity and effectiveness. They curtail the free exchange of ideas and constrict public discourse. They perpetuate stagnation in the name of continuity. They nurture a cadre of sycophants who mindlessly applaud their every move. And ultimately they confuse personal preferences with state interests. In short: no country governed by an elected leader (however talented and charismatic) for too long has remained a democracy over time. No such country can avoid domestic alienation, listlessness and lack of hope.
So why did Prime Minister Netanyahu, at this most sensitive conjuncture in Israel’s democratic development, decide to make a move to secure his primacy in the Likud (and, from his perspective, in the country) for years to come? In his words, such a step is imperative to “be prepared for every scenario”. As he explained on the eve of the vote in a letter to members of the party central committee: “we must avoid internal divisions in order to continue to lead the country along our common path with full force”. But are these the true reasons that motivated the Netanyahu’s initiative?
The Prime Minister’s decision was undoubtedly prompted by his well-known fear (verging on paranoia) of anyone who dares question his authority. With Nir Barkat already primed to run against him in the next internal elections and his nemesis, Gidon Sa’ar, gathering strength while biding his time on the sidelines, Netanyahu rushed to assure his hold before others could gather their supporters to mount a serious challenge. Two-thirds of his Likud cohorts, wary of going against the explicit desire of their leader, clearly forgot Silvan Shalom’s cautionary remark several years ago, on a similar occasion, when he remonstrated against the institutionalization of “the Israeli Ba’ath Party,” and ignored Sa’ar’s refusal to take part in what he dubbed a shameful “puppet theater”. Netanyahu’s triumph within the Likud may yet, however, prove to be his comeuppance.
In a step designed to stymie internal criticism and enhance control — much like the appointment of the incoming Attorney General — the Likud leader’s insecurity has brought him to flagrantly ignore the potential damage attendant on these actions. The Israeli public — as the snide comments in the press and the social networks demonstrate — has limited patience for the airs of royalty assumed by the first family and their wasteful ways. As the economic slowdown continues apace, the cost of living rises and personal opportunities contract, more and more citizens have become less indulgent towards the excesses of the Prime Minister and his entourage.
More profoundly, the severe restrictions on intra-party discussion (let alone serious public debate) cast a pall on Israel’s prospects in the coming years. In security terms, recent events have only served to underline the vacuity of Netanyahu’s efforts to restore a modicum of calm. His rhetoric — replete with accusations of incitement on the part of domestic as well as external foes — hardly invites the adoption of constructive policy alternatives (even when these are offered by the highest echelons of the defense establishment). His rejection of any overtures to Israel’s Arab (and especially Palestinian) neighbors in the volatile atmosphere of the region cannot but perpetuate an increasingly insular and untenable status quo. And his systematic condoning of overly-zealous attempts to curb criticism and dissent bodes ill for the persistence of pluralistic currents in the country.
The obstinate adherence to such a course under Netanyahu’s aegis is a sure prescription not only for further deterioration; ironically, it also sounds a death knell for the hegemony of Israel’s right — whose hold on power cannot be maintained over time if it closes itself to internal renewal. In the meantime, as suppression continues and disaffection deepens, many Israelis will simply lose faith in their system and its leaders.
Israel can ill afford the entrenchment of an electoral dynasty. If in the past, Israel’s political diversity was sufficient to prevent the corrosive dangers intrinsic to longevity in office (see Putin’s Russia and Erdogan’s Turkey), today a conscious effort is needed to prevent its occurrence. Israel, like most self-respecting democratic countries, must place a limit on the tenure of its leaders, ensuring that no individual may serve as prime minister for more than three terms. Until such a bill is passed, Israel’s democracy will continue to recede and its unique vigor will capitulate to a stifling, ethnocentric conformity, which initially was directed against Palestinians outside of Israel, then to its Arab community, recently to its Jewish opposition and now to rival voices within the ruling party.