When Bibi Met Corona: A Love Story

Some commentators are calling it a putsch. Personally, I think that’s a little over the top, though future developments may prove me wrong. Certainly, the recent actions of the Israeli government – with Benjamin Netanyahu, the indicted conman, at its head – raise serious questions about its commitment to legality, let alone democracy. There is every indication that Netanyahu is piggybacking on the coronavirus outbreak to ensure his personal future, whatever the cost.

All governments are taking extreme measures in the face of the pandemic – measures which, in different circumstances, would be considered anti-democratic, if not totalitarian. Netanyahu’s government can’t be faulted on that count (though his hubristic conduct in announcing the measures on TV was undoubtedly a violation of good taste.)

Where Israel differs from other states is in its lack of a stable government – Netanyahu and his cabinet have been serving in an acting capacity for the past year – and in the person of its prime minister. Not only is Netanyahu an indicted suspect, awaiting trial on corruption charges, but he has failed to establish a majority government after each of the last three elections – all in the space of one year, of course. Netanyahu, to put it simply, has no popular mandate.

Israel lacks a written constitution – a legacy of the religious influence over politics – but precedent and practice place stringent limitations on the powers of an interim government. It cannot, for example, make permanent appointments to senior positions, a precedent that Netanyahu has ignored in the appointments of his current justice, defense and foreign affairs ministers.

Whether an interim government should be taking the draconian steps announced over the past three days is a moot point; emergency action needed to be taken and there was no other government to take it. But it is the actions it has taken above and beyond the emergency measures which have prompted talk of a putsch. They include:

Firstly, the government has empowered the Shin Bet internal security service to monitor civilians via their mobile phones – an activity which is anti-democratic by definition. The state insists that it will only be tracking people under quarantine – to ensure that they are not breaking the rules – and that the data will be transferred directly to the Health Ministry.

Few believe that. No means of oversight have been announced and none are expected. As things stand, Israel is spying on its citizens by order of the government. Significantly, the government’s decision to deploy the Shin Bet was not submitted to the appropriate Knesset committee, as is obligatory by law.

Secondly, Justice Minister Amir Ohana, a Netanyahu toady wrongfully appointed to his post during the period of the interim government, unilaterally announced a “state of emergency” on Sunday, effectively shutting down the country’s law courts to all cases except those arising from the corona emergency.

One such non-emergency case which the courts were barred from hearing was – entirely coincidentally, I’m sure – Netanyahu’s first court appearance on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust, which was set for today. The hearing has been postponed for at least two months, a period that Netanyahu, a Houdini-like escape artist, is likely to use to come up with additional deferral strategies.

Thirdly, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a Netanyahu loyalist, announced that he would prevent the convening of a Knesset session to choose a new Speaker, on the spurious grounds that it would adversely influence coalition negotiations. During his tenure, Edelstein has been a reliable barrier against the tabling of any legislation perceived as detrimental to Netanyahu and his right-wing bloc.

Were Edelstein to be replaced – as opposition leader Benny Gantz is planning to do – the anti-Netanyahu parties have sufficient strength to pass a bill barring a person facing criminal charges from forming a government. That, naturally, would disqualify Netanyahu from continuing to sit in his favorite seat.

Announcing his anti-corona measures on Saturday night, Netanyahu called on all the country’s parties to unite under his leadership in the face of the enemy virus. (He didn’t mean the 15 Arab members of the Knesset, of course; they’re “supporters of terror,” which itself is a virus.) It was a rare misstep for the usually canny politician. Two days later, President Reuven Rivlin – a right-winger who hates Netanyahu’s guts – mandated opposition leader Gantz to establish a government.

Were Netanyahu as devoted to and caring about, his nation as he said he was on Saturday night, he would immediately bring his Likud Party into a government headed by Gantz – just as he called on Gantz to do before Rivlin’s intervention. It would be the right thing to do.

I wouldn’t hold my breath, though.