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Imagine that Donald Trump had been the president of the United States, in office and out and in and out and in yet again, for more than half of the past 25 years. What would the U.S. look like today?
Well, that’s about what Israel looks like today. In miniature, of course, and Prime Minister Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu is more clever than the Orange Ego. But he’s no more honest, he’s just as ruthless and he’s in even more trouble with the law.
In fact, Netanyahu is even willing to destroy Israeli democracy to stay out of jail — and it’s a lot easier to destroy. No written constitution, no second chamber of parliament. All it has is the supreme court, which can set aside laws that it sees as unjust or undemocratic.
So the obvious course for a man as deep in legal trouble as Bibi — charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust — is to take control of the judges. That’s not an option available to your average person facing criminal charges, but it’s different if you control the government.
Netanyahu is a man of the right, and two-thirds of Israeli voters say they are right-wing. Nevertheless, the Israeli political carousel throws up so many different parties and leaders that all Israeli governments must be coalitions.
Netanyahu was once the master coalition-maker, but by 2019, he had betrayed or alienated so many of the players that his existing (fifth) coalition government collapsed and he could not form another. However, nobody else could form a stable coalition without his Likud Party either.
Four elections in rapid succession produced four “anybody-but-Bibi” coalition governments with the lifespan of mayflies. Meanwhile, Netanyahu concentrated on cajoling three hard-right parties, each too small to get the 3.25 percent of the vote needed to qualify for seats in the Knesset (parliament), into a single party that passed that threshold.
The new party is called Religious Zionism. Some of its leaders are Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank who want to annex the whole territory to Israel, maybe even expel all the Palestinians. Others are ultra-Orthodox fanatics who want to impose their religious rules and traditions on all the secular and liberal Jews in the country as well.
Extreme nationalists like Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionists, now control the West Bank and the lives of millions of Palestinians. The first of many new laws to subordinate the courts to the decisions of the ruling parties has already gone through the Knesset. But over the past few weeks the other half of Israel woke up and began to protest.
The demonstrations grew steadily bigger and louder, the level of violence rose, and last week the country’s biggest trade union, Histadrut, called a general strike. Last Monday night Netanyahu, shocked by the strength of the protests, brought the whole process to a shuddering halt.
He was “not willing to tear the nation in half,” he said. “When there’s a possibility of avoiding fraternal war through dialogue, I will take time out for that dialogue.” But he’s only pausing the new legislation for a month, until the end of April. His far-right partners in government will no longer accept a delay.
Netanyahu knows what they are up to: a constitutional coup d’etat that will give the coalition supreme power in Israel. Coalition leaders have been visiting Hungary and Poland to get advice on how to do it. Both those countries have seen similar right-wing takeovers that left only a facade of democracy, and in both cases they started by taking over the judiciary.
Does the loose talk about a civil war mean anything? Probably not at this stage in the proceedings, but the country’s integration into the Middle East style of politics is making great progress. As Amos Harel of the Ha’aretz newspaper put it: “After 75 years, Israel has instantaneously closed the gaps between itself and its neighbors in the region.”