Political crisis in Israel: COVID-19 and democracy

Israel’s third elections in a row have brought little fundamental political change, despite a slightly reinvigorated Likud: a Knesset majority for the right wing block, which seemed so close on election day, is now decisively out of Benjamin Netanyahu’s reach. In the recent elections Israeli Arab voter turnout has increased significantly: the Joint List has obtained 15 seats in the Knesset. An interesting dynamic was the upsurge of the left-wing Jewish vote in favour of the Joint List, some deserting the Jewish left in a likely bid to protest anti-Arab demagoguery in Israel’s politics. Despite their increased turnout, the Arab Israelis are still, just like Russian-Israelis, ‘punching below their weight’ in proportion to their demographics. 

One of the main focuses of the repeated elections has been Benjamin Netanyahu’s indictments on the basis of breach of trust, accepting bribes and fraud. Israel’s society remains largely split between the ‘only Bibi’ and ‘anyone but Bibi’ camps in a struggle around Prime Ministerial immunity. 

Just like the United Kingdom, Israel doesn’t have a Constitution: it relies on an ‘Uncodified Constitution’, made of a patchwork of Basic Laws and rights, not devoid of paradoxes. One of the most glaring ones is the fact that unlike a government minister, an indicted Prime Minister can remain in office until the verdict becomes final. Unless Benny Gantz, the leader of Blue and White party manages to sideline Netanyahu, potentially by pushing a law through the Knesset that would prevent an indicted Knesset member from forming a government, Netanyahu will likely remain a strong and divisive presence in Israel’s politics. Benny Gantz was nominated by the President to form a government after getting the backing of a majority of Knesset members, yet as things stand today it is more unclear than ever who will come out on top. Various rumours during the week have insinuated that Gantz would be willing to join a unity government with Netanyahu, which Benny Gantz has actively denied. In a characteristic exchange of blows, Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu have accused each other of undermining democracy.

The situation was further complicated by the onset of the COVID-19 preventive measures. The rise in COVID-19 infections is allowing Benjamin Netanyahu to cast himself as a strong leader that the country needs in times of struggle. It would seem that the pandemic couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for the Prime Minister, since Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial was finally postponed until May, buying him more time. A government plan to use big data and digital surveillance to control the spread of COVID-19 has also raised concerns on the grounds of invasion of privacy. The High Court has however demanded that any such operation would have to take place under Knesset oversight, defusing some of the anxiety. 

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party was also for now able to prevent the opposition from replacing the current Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, who intended to block any opposition efforts to weaken Netanyahu’s hold on power. By resorting to ‘health concern’ measures, the speaker managed to shut down the Knesset until Monday the 23rd of March, which has sparked heated discussions on Israel’s social media. The influential liberal newspaper Haaretz has dubbed the crisis ‘Netanyahu’s coronavirus coup’ and deplored a situation where a minority is keeping a hold on power in spite of a majority that wants it to go.

If somehow Netanyahu manages to escape prosecution and cling on to power, his actions could potentially undermine Israel’s democracy.  This would likely materialise in Netanyahu’s ‘vendetta’ against the Supreme Court, which he accuses of a ‘leftist conspiracy’ despite having appointed the Attorney General himself.  

The crisis seems to have underlined multiple problems in Israel’s democracy, such as a crisis of government illustrated by repeated elections, a constitutional crisis allowing an indicted Prime Minister to stay in power, and significant strain on the system of checks and balances. One could argue that the situation was compounded by a gradual accumulation of power within the executive branch, and by the subservience of Yuli Edelstein, the speaker of the legislative branch, to the Prime Minister’s will.