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Israel’s Democracy Is at Stake: Do Not Unite With Netanyahu

Ehud Barak
Ehud Barak
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An illustration of Netanyahu and his admirers.
Credit: Photos: Mark Israel Salem / POOL / Jerusalem Post / Jason Salmon/Shutterstock.com / Artwork: Anastasia Shub
Ehud Barak
Ehud Barak

1. “We’ll make it through this, too”

Israel is poised at the brink of a fundamental point in its evolution. A turning point that will pose serious tests, and possibly cause serious damage, to the country’s identity and standing in the world, to its values and to the realities of daily life for its citizens.

But Israel has been and remains an extraordinary success story, having experienced seven wars, two intifadas, endless military operations, the ingathering of the exiles, peace accords with a significant number of its neighbors, a 14-fold population increase and an 80-fold growth in the output of the economy over the past 75 years. It has seen a blossoming of culture and science and become the startup and high-tech nation, with a strong currency and a high GDP.

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These achievements belong to all Israelis. And yes, to all of Israel’s governments. We are a people who like to complain (going back to the time of Moses) – a warm, straight-talking and somewhat boisterous people, but a people that is patriotic and cohesive when put to the test. We have endured and survived harsher tests than the ones we now face, and we will survive this too.

The United States has experienced similar tumult since the advent of “Trumpism.” Many people still fear for the future of American democracy and that struggle will continue for years to come, but two weeks ago we witnessed the boomerang effect there: The ongoing attack on democracy and basic civil rights, especially the Supreme Court ruling on abortion, was one of the main reasons the Republicans were trounced in the midterm elections.

Campaign signs for Meretz, Labor and Religious Zionism before this month's election.Credit: Hadas Parush

The Democrats’ determination to work together – including everyone from the conservative Joe Manchin to the far-left Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – with a fighting spirit and with aid from the Republican Lincoln Project, did the rest.

The same thing will happen here, in one variation or another, if we just know how to fight. Former Police Chief Roni Alsheich, a deep thinker, wrote last week on the Ynet news site that the wake-up call will come when the evisceration of the Israeli Supreme Court comes back to hit us like a boomerang, because in its independence, the court was Israel’s last shield against attempts to drag it to The Hague.

The esteemed historian Uri Bar-Joseph wrote in the Haaretz Hebrew edition earlier this month that the inevitable failure of the socioeconomic policy of the incoming government will eventually cause support for it to implode. Many other scenarios are possible too. In one way or another, the collapse will come. The question is: how long will it take, and how bad will the damage be.

2. This isn’t about “Anyone but Bibi!” It’s ‘’Anything but corruption” and “Anything but the erasure of democracy”

Believe it or not, this isn’t coming from an “Anyone but Bibi” approach. This isn’t about hatred. So, what is it? It’s “Anything but corruption” and it’s “Anything but the erasure of democracy.” It is not hatred. I am one of Benjamin Netanyahu’s bluntest critics. I have never harbored hatred toward him. He is not a lightweight, and he has many accomplishments to his name.

I feel empathy toward him on a personal level – along with a compulsion to take action against the severe damage that his conduct is causing, and will continue to cause, to the vulnerable fabric of Israeli society and to the foundations underlying our ability to live together in an open, compassionate and enlightened society that draws on our ancient heritage and the values of our Declaration of Independence.

If someone else, such as my good friend Dan Meridor, or Yair Lapid or Benny Gantz, both of whom I know well, were to somehow try to promote corruption or harm democracy, I would oppose him just as bluntly and resolutely. I have already done it in the past.

But where did this theory of “hatred” and “Anyone but Bibi” come from? What we have here is a classic instance of what psychologists refer to as “projection.” Members of the cult of “money, power and honor” – who, in the service of Netanyahu, are waging an uninhibited smear campaignof public delegitimization, erasure and cancellation and, when possible, also incrimination of anyone perceived as a threat – are following this rule: Attack your adversary on precisely the same point where you yourself fail (which, by the way, was the advice of one of the great propagandists of the previous century).

The new government that appears to be taking shape, as of this writing, will be grossly irresponsible. (Actual) pyromaniacs will be put in charge of putting out fires. And the cats will be appointed to guard the cream. The odds of an escalation in the security situation will increase. The doors to corruption in the economy and the government will be thrown wide open.

Benjamin Netanyahu, center, looks at far-right politician Itamar Ben-Gvir, during the inaugural sitting of the 25th Knesset, last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The 61-MK override clause will all but obliterate the High Court of Justice, the separation of powers and the protection of fundamental rights for individuals and minorities. The appointment of Supreme Court justices by politicians will finish off the bench. Splitting the job of the attorney general will enable the appointment of a straw man chief prosecutor who will call for a halt to Netanyahu’s trial (by a “delay of proceedings”), or what’s left of it, after the charges of fraud and breach of trust are canceled. Netanyahu is very experienced, and he is not stupid.

Obviously, once the media has loudly trumpeted and thoroughly inflated all the dangers of the new government’s anticipated moves (“stuffing the pen with more goats,” according to the tried-and-true method), only some will be acted upon, and likely in a more moderate form (“removing a few goats,” leading everyone to breathe easier).

The truth is that not all of the proposed measures have to be implemented in order to pulverize the country’s justice system and democracy. A partial, more moderate group of measures that are cleverly chosen and implemented in a smooth and graduated manner could yield the full results and preliminarily effect of a profound change in the structure of the regime and the trajectory the country is on. The executive branch will subdue and neuter the judicial branch.

This has nothing to do with the “Anything but Bibi” sentiment or with hatred. This is about protecting ourselves and our democracy from dangerous and unfettered madness. This is something worth fighting for.

3. So why not a unity government?

Many people tell us: If you’re so worried about the combination of the Bibi-ist cult and rising messianic-racist forces (and remember that we have just emerged from the “trench warfare” – in Bibi’s words – of the election campaign), this is the time to join forces and work together for the sake of all Israelis.

Pursue a “unity” government that will extract Netanyahu from the pincers of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, people say. Choose the lesser of the evils, argue with your adversaries from within the government, work from within it to restrain the threat to the justice system and mitigate the dangers of other reckless adventures.

This would be the right thing to do if we had just emerged from trench warfare in which both sides were acting on behalf of the common good of every Israeli, and the argument was simply over the details of how to get there, and over the question of who would lead such an effort.

It might have been the correct thing to do 10 or 15 years ago. That is not the situation today. Right-wing journalist and commentator Kalman Liebskind put it well: The Bibi-ist camp isn’t out to win the argument – its aim is to prevent the possibility of it even occurring.

Over recent years, this cult and its “Dear Leader” have been responsible for demolishing the pillars of democracy, the values of truth and trust, and have undermined the commitment to equality, to human dignity and human rights as set out by Israel’s Declaration of Independence. They are the element that is seeking to supplant our democracy’s system of checks and balances with a tyranny of the majority, plain and simple.

And a tyranny it shall be. Trying to work with them would be like the wolf and sheep discussing what to have for dinner tonight. Just ask Gantz. Or perhaps he has somehow forgotten, too? I would like to hope and believe that is not the case.

What was described above in the second section is exactly what Netanyahu will do. And remember, from this minimum – being spared of having to undergo a full trial, even at the cost of hobbling our democracy – he will not budge. For him this is politically existential.

For this reason, for some years now, Netanyahu has been exploiting those around him and using every means at his disposal to wage a campaign of destruction: unbridled incitement against the justice system since the day his trial began; incitement and the fanning of hatred among different communities in Israeli society (Natan Eshel: “Our camp is built on hatred”); five elections; two and a half years without a budget; a vile, slanderous campaign against his investigators and prosecutors, and almost against his judges, all to the tune of “I have been framed!”; exertion of pressure bordering on the criminal on public officials; deceit and betrayal of nearly all of his partners; violation of his commitment to the High Court to sign a conflict of interest agreement; and more.

Therefore, a healthy society desirous of life must not surrender to his dictates, which constitute a type of blackmail vis-à-vis the state. This cannot be accepted, not even if it is framed as follows: Save me from the golem I’ve created (i.e., Ben-Gvir and Smotrich) and just allow the cancellation of my trial (thereby undermining the principle of equality before the law) and the option to throw you by the wayside when the circumstances change and I choose to continue pursuing the campaign of destruction.

Given what the Bibi cult and its leader have already wrought, there is no real option except to conduct the trial through to the very end. Even a lenient plea bargain or, in particular, a pardon, would lead to a moral graveyard and total self-degradation on the part of the country. It would do irreversible and intolerable damage to the proper norms of any self-respecting country and create a precedent that any future prime minister, cabinet minister or president could look to, should they find themselves accused of corruption.

To all those who ask, but what’s the alternative, to allow him to wreak even more destruction? – that simply underscores the depth of the surrender, which amounts to functional and moral bankruptcy. Taking that position would have existential implications for democracy. Thus, under no circumstances would uniting with him be the appropriate thing to do.

4. Why did we lose? And what are the prerequisites for change?

We lost because the “camp of hope” did not have enough votes. And why did this happen? Because Merav Michaeli did not merge with Zehava Galon to form a technical bloc. Because Lapid did not agree to lower the electoral threshold to 2 percent. Because not everyone in the bloc had surplus-vote agreements. Because the bill that would have barred a criminal defendant from serving as prime minister did not pass during the first two weeks of the “government of change.”

On a deeper level, this happened because the “camp of hope” did not set aside its internal disputes in the lead-up to the election, and did not truly join forces and fight to defeat corruption and messianic racism, to restore proper governance and citizens’ personal security (without even stressing the opponent’s responsibility for the deterioration in governance and security during his 12 years in power, the peak of which was the violent unrest during the fighting with Gaza in May 2021) while emphasizing the need to remove the threat to Israel’s democracy.

Frankly speaking, the election campaign was devoid of fire and passion. It had no oomph. It was hard to say just what the “camp of hope” was fighting for. It is hard to win that way. But many lessons for the future can be gleaned from this, which we will hopefully implement.

There are several more substantial reasons for the failure that must be fully clarified and understood, and these include the challenges of consolidating a vision and narrative for liberal Zionism in the Israel of 2022, defining the role Jewish heritage and tradition play in our life as a country, and determining the relationship between religion and state within Israel and vis-à-vis the Diaspora.

Should we look to conservative political parties and groups in Israel and abroad for a lesson on political effectiveness? What are the so-called camp of hope’s primary values and why is it failing to inspire a majority of voters to coalesce around those values?

All of these issues, on some of which I hold unpopular opinions, must be addressed, in the hope of arriving at a broad common denominator. Only if and when this happens will there be a chance of fundamentally changing the political reality in Israel. Only in the wake of profound soul-searching and fresh examination of old conventions will it be possible to set about planning and implementing – by means of separate but coordinated modes of action – for the short term, until the next election, and for the long term, for the next generation.

May we rise to the challenge.

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