Coronavirus crisis threatens democracy in Israel

    Sunday, 22 March 2020
    President Rivlin (to the right) and Blue White leader Benny Gantz in Knesset on 16 March, credit: Mark Neyman (GPO)

    The rule of law in every democracy is based on the separation of powers and the independence of the court system.

    In Israel the caretaker government under Benyamin Netanyahu is using the crisis as a pretext to suspend the newly elected parliament and to close down the courts.

    Despite relatively early measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus, such as compulsory quarantine for returning citizens from affected countries, Israel faces the same challenges today as the rest of the world in flattening the curve and carrying out enough tests. Its hospitals have been underfinanced for years. The health ministry is run by a politician from an ultra-orthodox party.

    On Sunday (22 March), the number of reported cases of infected persons had increased to 945, of which 20 had severe symptoms. Until now there has been only one fatality. On the positive side, Israel has modern hospitals, dedicated health care staff, innovative companies and a military organisation for protecting the home front in emergencies.

    To Prime-Minister Netanyahu’s credit it must be said that he was impressive when he gave his first speech to the nation a week ago. He called on all citizens to stay at home as much as possible and to practice social distancing when at work or in the streets. Hardly any other Israeli politician could have appealed to the citizens and alerted them on the coronavirus crisis as he did.

    Since then he has appeared in TV almost every evening, each time announcing new measures. He is warning that the virus will kill many people before it can be stopped and threatening that a curfew is imminent and will be enforced if voluntary compliance with the rules is not sufficient. That’s all well and Netanyahu, who is in charge of the response to outbreak, would make a good anti-corona minister.

    But the trust he might have aroused in himself and the government has been damaged by using the coronavirus crisis to call for a unity government after each speech to the nation. In such a government, he imagines that he can continue to serve as Prime-Minister despite that his bloc did not get a majority in the recent elections and he himself has been indicted on serious charges.

    The parliamentary elections on 2 March, the third ones in less than one year, did not give Netanyahu the majority he had wished for to form a centre-right-orthodox government. After being indicted last November on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, his trial was scheduled to start in a Jerusalem court on 17 March.

    His appointee to justice minister issued in the middle of the night a decree closing down the courts, besides for urgent issues, because of the lockdown and social distancing measures that had been announced by Netanyahu on the evening before. This very same justice minister had also appointed a new deputy state prosecutor against the protests of the state attorney who had indicted Netanyahu.

    The three judges in the Jerusalem court followed suit and decided to postpone the trial. Even worse, the Israeli parliament (Knesset) has been closed since the first formal meeting on 15 March. Its sitting speaker, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, refuses to reconvene it to allow for it to start working.

    The first point on the agenda would be to elect a new speaker from the Blue White party and establish a so-called organizing parliamentary committee. This committee plays an important role in the work of the Knesset and would have to approve which new law proposals should be voted on.

    After consultations with all political parties, President Reuven Rivlin assigned on 16 March the task of forming a new government to the chairman of Blue White, Benny Gantz. He has the support of 61 members of Knesset, including 15 from the Arab-Palestinian Joint List. Netanyahu is supported by 59 members of Knesset, including a member who acted as a Trojan horse and deserted her party.

    “A fourth round of elections are not possible and the keys to establishing a new Israeli government are now in your hands and in the hands of all the elected officials from all parties,” the president told Benny Gantz. His majority has been threatened by desertions from within his party who prefer a unity government with Netanyahu. Gantz himself has appeared as wavering in keeping his election promises.

    Luckily, Israeli citizens are not indifferent to Netanyahu’s transparent and futile attempts to stay in power, using the coronavirus crisis as a pretext to lockdown the parliament and to adopt curfew rules based on emergency ordinances dating to the British mandate period.

    One of the most innovative actions taken in any country during the crisis, when ordinary demonstrations in the streets are not possible any longer, was a virtual demonstration on Facebook yesterday evening (21 March), which gathered about 150,000 participants. The motto of the demonstration was “Protecting our home from home”.

    Two former chiefs of Israel’s security and intelligence bodies warned against the imminent threat to Israel’s democracy. Elyakim Rubinstein, a former attorney general and judge in Israel’s supreme court did the same and defended the constitutional order in the country which now is in danger. Only a month and half ago he gave a speech in Brussels and avoided politics. Now he had to speak out.

    An original one-person demonstration took place in Kfar Saba on Saturday. A former combat solider, belonging to the same military unit as former chief of general staff Gabi Ashkenazy, one of the leaders of the Blue White party, demonstrated with an Israeli flag and a black flag outside Ashkenazy’s house. Ashkenazy is apparently also wavering and is considering joining a unity government under Netanyahu.

    Normally, a coup d’etat is carried out from the outside by forces that want to overthrow the government. Israel is probably the first democracy in the world where the putsch is done in reverse, by the government itself, in a creeping dismantling of checks and balances in society. 

    Update:

    Israel is closer than ever to anarchy. Monday (23 March) was a political nightmare. First the Supreme Court of Justice asked Yuli Edelstein, the acting speaker of Knesset, to agree to convening the Knesset by Wednesday to elect a new speaker. He was giving 17pm to reply. At 21pm he replied that he did not accept the court’s “ultimatum.”

    Immediately afterwards, the court issued its ruling. Edelstein must convene the Knesset by Wednesday for the election of a new speaker. In its unanimous decision, the court wrote that the “protracted refusal to enable the Knesset plenary to elect a permanent speaker undermines the democratic process”.

    A refusal by the governing party to comply with a supreme court ruling risks also undermining the public’s compliance with the strict lockdown rules put into place during the coronavirus crisis.

    M. Apelblat