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Regime change in the shadow of the coronavirus

The political changes being perpetrated under the guise of the COVID-19 disaster chip away at Israel's democracy while so many are too worn out to pay full attention
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu points at a map of the Jordan Valley as he gives a statement in Ramat Gan, near the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv, on September 10, 2019. - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a deeply controversial pledge on September 10 to annex the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank if re-elected in September 17 polls. He also reiterated his intention to annex Israeli settlements throughout the West Bank if re-elected, though in coordination with US President Donald Trump, whose long-awaited peace plan is expected to be unveiled sometime after the vote. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
Illustrative. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu points at a map of the Jordan Valley, in Ramat Gan, on September 10, 2019. He had issued a deeply controversial pledge on September 10 to annex the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank if re-elected in September 17 polls. He also reiterated his intention to annex Israeli settlements throughout the West Bank if re-elected, in coordination with US President Donald Trump. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

Independence Day this year is perhaps the most bewildering and confining in Israel’s 72-year-old history. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected not only the physical health of its citizens, but also the country’s social, economic, and political robustness. It now shows signs of penetrating the basic premise of freedom that informed the creation of the state and has sustained it during its brief history.

Pandemics, by their very nature, threaten human existence and limit choices. The COVID-19 virus, because of its still largely unknown behavior, has had a massive effect on individual lives and radiated into virtually every aspect of the socioeconomic order throughout the world. In Israel, it appeared at the height of an unprecedented political crisis that has paralyzed the public sphere for well over a year. The results of the third round of elections last month only served to confirm the depth of the governmental deadlock that plagues its polity. The country entered the coronavirus era with a host of political background ailments which rendered it particularly exposed to its lethal effects; their treatment by the coalition in-the-making may yet prove to be mortal.

Whatever the motives of Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz in coming together to form a national emergency government (on this matter speculations continue to abound), freedom — in every sense of the term — will be further constrained. From the outset, the decision to come together in this format defies the will of Israel’s electorate. A majority, however slight, voted knowingly for parties committed to ousting the present incumbent. Almost the same number wants him in office at all costs. The creation of a joint coalition flies in the face of the preferences of most Israelis who, however much they would like to see a common government, feel at least somewhat misled (Blue-White and Labor-Gesher-Meretz especially so). Even in these most unusual of circumstances, the basic notion of representation has been manipulated — if not thoroughly distorted.

Just as the COVID-19 scare has forced so many Israelis into unusual submission, so, too, do the provisions of the incoming government — supposedly constituted to deal with the unprecedented challenges incurred by its spread — strip the country and its citizens of their basic liberties. Building on the widespread quest for a modicum of certainty in a period of immense flux, the two heretofore arch-rivals are using the present predicament in such a way as to enhance their own power and in the process block both stability and policy predictability.

To overcome the ingrained mistrust between the main partners and to accommodate considerable internal party demands, the projected size of the incoming government — potentially reaching 36 ministers and 16 deputy ministers — is the most over-bloated in Israel’s history. In a time of growing (in some cases, extreme) economic distress this possibility has generated an uproar. The argument of supporters — that the cost of a fourth set of elections would be greater — sounds lame indeed. Obesity at the apex of power, as in the spread of corona, runs the risk of flying out of control.

Much in the same vein, it tends to obscure deeper contributing factors: in COVID-19 this may be diabetes or high blood pressure; in the realm of government, the absence of any coherent policy direction (the publication of the coalition guidelines has been deferred to some later date). Moreover, the mutual veto on concrete initiatives granted to each of the two blocs comprising the government points to the probability of even greater administrative paralysis. This arrangement neither increases governmental capacity nor enhances its effectiveness.

Ironically, too, the rotating two-headed structure of the proposed coalition is designed more to assure the maintenance of the agreement than to promote the dynamic treatment of a constantly shifting reality. Government continuity, which in any event rests on the trust of citizens, cannot mean a freeze on political change. But that is precisely the heart of the Netanyahu-Gantz deal. It provides for locking in the proposed coalition for a period of three years regardless of what it does — or does not — do. At best, this is a prescription for inaction and civil discontent; at worst, it is a prelude to a popular uprising. In either event, it makes mincemeat of the concept of stable government resting on inclusive political participation.

The tools employed to assure the implementation of the agreement and enable the creation of Israel’s 35th government involve a remaking of its most fundamental structures. The revisions of the “Basic Law: The Government” and the “Basic Law: The Knesset,” currently being debated will elevate the executive branch at the expense of the legislature and the judiciary, thereby thoroughly upsetting the already fragile checks and balances in Israel’s democracy. This legislation will almost completely undermine the status of the Knesset in its parliamentary democracy and emasculate the opposition — one of the most vital pillars of vibrant democratic life. It will also further weaken the judiciary, whose independence has already been assaulted well before coronavirus became a household term.

Such legislation, if adopted, constitutes nothing short of a fundamental regime change. It comes in the wake of a decade-long process of systematic democratic erosion which has witnessed the limitation of individual rights (especially free speech and association); the undercutting of regime accountability and with it the spread of official corruption; and the rise of populism nurtured by regime-instigated incitement and societal division. It makes a mockery of the rule of law and does away with what’s left of the norms devised to check the abuse of power. This effort, then, devised to improve the ability to deal with uncertainty, will unleash the greatest upheaval in Israel’s political system to date.

These extreme measures are being presented just when Israelis are beginning to emerge from a physically, emotionally and economically debilitating lockdown as a temporary move required to confront the corona-induced crisis. Many are too exhausted to address the implications of these proposals; others are willing to accept them if they pave the way to better days. This claim would be more convincing if the coalition agreement also pointed to concrete steps. These, with the exception of vague references to the budget — without any content — are however glaringly absent, thus further reinforcing the gravity of the political changes being perpetrated under the guise of the COVID-19 disaster.

In fact, the only policy issue raised in the coalition agreement relates to a deal among the new partners on the implementation of the annexation suggestions embedded in President Trump’s recent plan for a resolution of Israel’s conflict with its neighbors. The future of Israel’s control over the territories occupied in 1967 stands at the center of the self-definition of the state and its citizens. The debate over this issue has shaped Israeli politics and defined the political map for over half a century. At stake is not only the country’s geographic shape, but also its identity. To determine this most profound of questions without a comprehensive discussion of the details of such a move and its implications among the representatives of all Israel’s diverse communities and viewpoints is beyond irresponsible. It highlights, once again, the deleterious consequences of the limitation of personal, social and political freedoms. These are not just an abstract matter of sacrificing Israel’s democratic order; they also have a direct impact on the legitimacy and hence the viability of the state itself.

This is not a happy Independence Day. Israelis have been instructed to stay at home, unable to participate in the traditional memorials for those who gave their lives so that they can be here today and prevented by a countrywide closure from partaking in the celebrations usually associated with the marking of the creation of the state. This a poignant reminder of the growing tendency to circumscribe their freedom to choose, disagree, cooperate and move forward in an open society. The loss of these liberties threatens not only to doom what’s left of Israel’s democracy — a process that is already taking place in other countries — but also to threaten its very being.

Israel is desperately in need of an inoculation against the further entrenchment of its peculiar form of political coronavirus. Thankfully, the incredible spirit of its Jewish and Arab citizens as demonstrated so consistently in recent weeks provides hope that — rather than succumbing to retrogressive shifts now taking place—they will reassert themselves in a common effort to revive an inclusive, tolerant, innovative and vibrant democratic society. May this Independence Day serve as a vivid reminder for all Israelis of the imperative of freedom and the principle of equality on which it rests.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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