There is a political refrain “Bibi, King of Israel,” simultaneously applauding and mocking Bibi’s uncontested position in Israeli politics.
However, how does Bibi measure up to the paradigm of a Jewish king laid out in the 17th chapter of Deuteronomy?
- The King will be appointed by the people.
- The King can’t have too many horses, or gold and silver. Michael Walzer, in his book, “Politics in the Hebrew Bible” frames this as a demand that “the king is not to expand his household or increase his power or wealth…beyond what is absolutely necessary for the performance of his duties.” Walzer sees the prohibition on too many horses as a prohibition on the King amassing military power for himself through a powerful and numerous royal guard.
- The King is bound by the laws pertaining to kings set out in Deuteronomy, and, by God’s laws that appear throughout the Torah. Since he is bound by laws about the form of government, he is a proto-constitutional monarch. As a matter of fact, he must write a copy of the constitution and carry it with him, as can be seen from the commandment that he write and carry around his own copy of the Torah.*
- There is a separation of powers, with separate judicial and executive branches.
How does Bibi compare?
- Bibi was definitely appointed by the people; he won the elections.
- Bibi does not, to my knowledge, have many horses. However, the numerous corruption allegations against him – allegations that are credible enough to warrant extensive police investigations -do point to a real possibility he is accruing gold and silver. Certainly employing a full-time chef and spending tens of thousands on takeout food, on the public dime, counts as accruing, if not gold and silver itself, the food items and human resources that can be bought with it. As for the amassing of inordinate amounts of power symbolized by owning horses, Bibi is certainly doing that, from holding numerous minister portfolios, to getting involved with the broadcast authority, to shutting down any right-wing politicians the minute they exhibit prime ministerial ambitions, to having his government propose a ‘French law” that would make him immune from prosecution as long as he’s in office.
- Does Netanyahu consider himself bound by the laws? It seems like the French law is an attempt to protect himself from prosecution if he breaks the laws; meanwhile, bills proposed by Bibi’s government targeting NGOs based on their political beliefs, alongside speeches attacking the judicial branch and the free press, threaten Israel’s system of laws and its nature as a democratic state.
- Bibi has used powerful words attacking the judicial branch; proposed legislation by Bibi’s government would allow the Knesset to exert more control over judicial matters and essentially circumvent the Supreme Court, thus threatening the separation of powers.
I’m not completely comfortable with the type of analysis I just engaged in. However, many of Bibi’s supporters come from communities where such types of biblical analyses are used to justify right-wing policies, especially when it comes to settlements and the two-state solution.
If you want to to talk about how God’s promise to Abraham in Parshat Lech Lecha means we can’t give up Beit El, why aren’t you ready to speak about how the Deuteronomy’s laws mean that we can’t support leaders who are being heavily investigated for credible suspicions of corruption?
If you really think Bibi’s “King of Israel”, it’s time to start comparing him to the royal standard – a standard of which he falls woefully short.
*Arguably, from context, the text is referring to the king writing and carrying that section of the Torah, which deals with the laws of kings. I’m using the traditional Rabbinic interpretation that it’s the whole Torah that’s referred to.