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The price of keeping Netanyahu in office

Each day this lame duck PM remains in office creates distortions that will prove very costly to undo
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (c) meets with settler leaders in his office on February 25, 2018. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (c) meets with settler leaders in his office on February 25, 2018. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Binyamin Netanyahu is determined to fight to the bitter end: despite the multiple charges of impropriety he faces — and the many more that are currently under investigation — he refuses to let go. In any other democratic country, the myriad of probes surrounding his conduct (some already, according to the police, ripe for indictment) would have compelled him to resign — or at least suspend himself temporarily. Not only is this not happening, but, in the prime minister’s case, the battle for retaining power at all cost — even if only for a short while — continues apace. What accounts for this obstinacy? And is it worth the immense price that all Israelis will incur for years to come?

The arguments for resignation or voluntary recusal at this time are straightforward. As Netanyahu himself pointed out when his predecessor Ehud Olmert found himself in a similar situation, no individual, however talented, can guide the affairs of state confidently and reasonably while much of his energy and time is taken up with clearing his name. That alone should have brought Netanyahu to step aside a few weeks ago. But not only has he not heeded his own advice, he has also chosen to turn a deaf ear to the corollary of this demand: major decisions made by leaders suspected of criminal activity are of questionable legitimacy. Since their motives may be suspect and their substance seriously contested, they lack the essential authority required in working democracies. In brief, policies made by personally vulnerable leaders — especially in uncertain times — cannot evoke public confidence. And without this basic trust, their consequences are inevitably divisive (a deeply worrisome prospect given the volatility on Israel’s border with Syria, Lebanon and Gaza).

The partners to the coalition, and particularly the members of Netanyahu’s own party, the Likud, have been unanimous only on one matter: support for the continuation of their leader’s tenure. They insist that no charges have yet been brought against the prime minister, that he has the right — like all suspects — to be deemed innocent until proven guilty, and that the calls for his suspension or resignation are nothing short of an attempt to depose a democratically-elected leader by undemocratic means. Behind these arguments lie only thinly-veiled power considerations: the absence of a duly-designated deputy prime minister makes it impossible to agree on a successor on short notice, thus rendering a suspension at the top a prelude for early elections — something few members of the coalition (and some members of the opposition) want at this time.

As expected, the discussion over the early retirement of Binyamin Netanyahu has become totally politicized — in no small measure at his instigation and with his ongoing support. As long as it continues, he can enjoy a bit more time in office whilst boosting the cohesion of his support base (what he views as a political family), thereby perhaps buying a few more days in the Prime Minister’s Office.

All this makes perfectly good sense (although many would have it otherwise) if not for the enormous price Israeli citizens of all persuasions and all walks of life will have to pay for Netanyahu’s obduracy and for the cult of adulation he has nurtured and serves him so well. The question today is not whether he will remain in office for much longer (he won’t), but what damage will be wrought in the interim while he clings to office for dear life in these circumstances.

Every day that the current prime minister remains in power is yet another field day for his party members and for his coalition partners. Without a restraining hand at the helm, everybody in some position of power is taking advantage of the informal yet extensive free hand they have been given by Netanyahu to promote their own agenda. The signs are clear on a number of fronts. The ultra-Orthodox parties already succeeded in passing the “mini-market” bill, which adversely affects many secular and traditional supporters of the Likud and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu. They are now threatening to withhold support for the budget (and hence from Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon) if two bills effectively exempting ultra-Orthodox conscription are not promoted immediately. They have regained control of the health ministry, imposed their will on academic institutions, pushed gender segregation in public spaces and will continue to pursue their particularistic interests as long as they know that they hold the balance between the maintenance of the present government and its collapse.

The same holds true for the Jewish Home party of Minister of Education Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. The latter is bent on carrying out a widespread revision of the legal system. She recently succeeded in appointing two avowedly conservative justices to the Supreme Court without much difficulty (the political representatives on the committee understanding too well the negative implications of questioning her choices). She now sees an opportunity to further constrain the reach of the High Court of Justice and to minimize its influence on the legislative process (several bills in this direction are now being advanced in the Knesset). The Jewish Home party’s actions against human rights organization have proceeded substantially in recent weeks (the law against the appearance of left-leaning NGOs in school — the so-called “Breaking the Silence Law” — passing its first reading earlier this week). So have their patently discriminatory initiatives against Arab citizens of Israel (the shelved “Muezzin Law” is once again up for discussion).

Most tellingly, settler interests and settler rights are being bolstered at every turn. Joint proposals by the Jewish Home party and the Likud are adopted in the Knesset almost daily. The law to incorporate institutions of higher education located in the West Bank into the Council of Higher Education — a move that flouts international law and threatens to harm Israeli research agreements with the European Union — was passed just last week. Several similar bills that would effectively impose Israeli law beyond the Green Line are now being expedited. The “Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People Law,” which has been on hold because of serious disagreements in the Knesset, the public, and the Jewish world, is once again under consideration.

Perhaps most perniciously, several concrete steps to press policies that promote sweeping (as well as creeping) annexation in the West Bank have moved forward. These involve the construction of new bypass roads, the expansion of settlement construction, the redefinition of the boundaries and composition of Jerusalem and the further extension of Israeli authority over large portions of the territories under Israeli control since 1967. What even the most right-wing governments in Israel have avoided doing for decades, the members of the present coalition are expediting under an essentially lame-duck prime minister entirely dependent on their goodwill.

It is difficult to assess the harm to Israel and to Israelis of these measures — especially since their content and extent are still unfolding. But it is not too early to understand that reversing their effects — if possible — will require a great deal of hard work and will exact untold social costs. It might be even more difficult to rehabilitate the foundations of good government that are being obliterated in the process. Without effective parliamentary oversight, neo-authoritarian trends are gathering momentum. Restoring checks and balances, basic norms of accountability, the rule of law and agreement on the rules of the game — all pillars that uphold free societies — will become a daunting task indeed.

These are just a few of the challenges that will face Israel in the months and years after the end of the Netanyahu era. There are simply too many forces within his coalition, each pulling in different in different directions and creating additional contradictions, for him to hang on for much longer. But each day he remains in office creates more distortions and hence exacts an exorbitant price. If Binyamin Netanyahu really believes that his mission has always been to protect and develop Israel, his best contribution now to the Israeli public and to the country he holds dear would be to step down before he destroys everything he claims to have worked so hard to achieve.

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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