Tomorrow we go to the polls … again, and my son, who is turning 23, will be voting in his fifth election. Israel is now ranked number one for conducting the largest number of elections in a short period. The country’s current political instability has been caused by the unwillingness of former prime minister Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu to retire from politics, despite being under indictment, and in the midst of a trial for public corruption and bribery.
Most of Israel’s leading secular politicians have refused to enter into any coalition Netanyahu would head — both because of his legal situation and the fact few believe he is a man of his word (a criticism even his religious allies have recently been heard acknowledging). Israeli law has a strange loophole which prohibits an individual under indictment from serving as a Knesset minister, or holding any job that requires security clearance, with exception to the office of Prime Minister. Those who drafted the law simply never anticipated that someone under indictment would run for the highest office. However, they did not know Benjamin Netanyahu.
This latest election campaign, the longest in Israel’s history, got off a slow start due to the Jewish holidays. In many ways, this campaign initially seemed like a replay of the previous four campaigns — i.e. rallying those for or against Netanyahu. However, as the Jewish holidays ended the campaign developed a whole new element, clearly mutating into a campaign for, or against, Israel as a modern western democratic state.
Netanyahu’s Likud and the parties that support him have made it clear they aim to implement “reforms” that will strip Israel of its democratic checks and balances; while also taking actions that will set back the tentative, but very real success Israel has had integrating its Israeli Arab population into the mainstream of Israel’s economy.
Bezalel Smotritch, head of the National Religious Party, unveiled a set of reforms he plans to demand which include the elimination of the law against public corruption. Doing so would effectively end Netanyahu’s trial on the counts for which he is most likely to be convicted. Smotritch’s party would also demand a change so that politicians would be responsible to nominate judges. Moreover, most importantly and most dangerously, Smotritch’s party would allow the Knesset to override decisions of the high court. The latter call comes from the fact that every once in a while the court rules against settlers, or others, who do not respect the civil rights of others. Their contention is that the people should rule in a democracy. Smotritch and his party seem to have missed the lessons which made clear that a key component of a democracy is how it safeguards the rights of its minorities, and not how it imposes the will of the majority.
At the same time, Otzma Yehudit party head Itamar Ben Gvir, running in a joint list with the Religious Zionist party, has called for the establishment of an office to aid in Arab emigration. Ben Gvir, who was not allowed to serve in the army because of his past terror activities, goes around pointing a pistol at Arabs whenever he gets into a confrontation, consistently hiding behind his parliamentary immunity. Netanyahu said recently that he sees Ben Gvir as a possible Minister of Security in charge of the Police.
Not to be outdone by Ben Gvir, a senior Likud official who has demanded he be appointed justice minister, called for jailing the attorney general and police commissioner from the time of Netanyahu’s indictment, claiming the pair fabricated all the cases against the former Prime Minister. It should be noted that both gentlemen were Netanyahu appointees.
Meanwhile, the ultra-Orthodox parties (who would be part of any future Netanyahu government) have made it clear they have no intention of allowing their constituents to become educated in secular subjects, or become part of a modern society. The new head of Degel Torah (the main Ashkenazic/European ultra-Orthodox party), Yitzhak Goldknopf was interviewed several times recently. In those conversations, Goldknopf claimed it was more difficult to be a yeshiva student than a soldier. He said during the last 20 years, knowledge of math has not helped Israel economically.
It should be noted that the current government had reached an agreement with the largest Hasidic group (the Belz) to begin teaching basic secular studies in their schools, in return for full funding. Netanyahu undermined that agreement, by promising full state funding, even if they do not teach secular subjects. So, if Netanyahu forms the next government, it is clear the ultra-Orthodox will continue to evade providing a basic education to their children, making them unable to obtain decent jobs in a 21st-century economy.
So, what does this all mean? If Netanyahu forms a squarely right-wing coalition Israel is likely loose the essential element of a democracy — i.e. judicial review, its policy towards its Arab-Israeli citizens will become confrontational, its coalition will do nothing to constrain the worst actions of the settlers, and the ultra-Orthodox community will continue to grow without providing a basis to support itself.
A reasonable person would ask — How could Netanyahu agree to all of these drastic changes? After all he has always been cautious and concerned about the world’s opinion of Israel, and respectful to the judiciary. Netanyahu, without doubt, has been a fierce defender of Israel on the world stage and accomplished many good things as Prime Minister. So, under normal circumstances, Netanyahu would never want to establish such an ideologically narrow government. However, Netanyahu’s trial is continuing. Most legal observers believe the case against Netanyahu is strong and he is very likely to be convicted on at least some of the charges. As a result, for Netanyahu the choice is between forming a problematic government, vs. eventually going to jail — not much of a choice.
Although we will shortly cast our ballots to choose between a coalition led by Netanyahu with his right-wing partners, or the continuation of our current center-left-wing government — which by all objective accounts has performed well, without drama, or crisis — Nevertheless, almost every poll predicts that neither faction will get the number of votes necessary to form a government. If that happens for the fifth time, perhaps Netanyahu can finally be persuaded to retire. Should that come to pass, many new constellations will become possible.
Currently, nearly all of my friends and acquaintances fear Netanyahu might win again, and the implications of that victory are too dark for many to imagine. Please go out to vote. Please do not vote for darkness. Vote for light. Vote for a future of hope; a future of a democratic Israel where the rule of law reigns, and all Israelis — whatever their background— can be full citizens of our wonderful country.