(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In the waning days of 2018, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for elections in April, he did so from what appeared to be a position of strength. Although he had long been in a low-scale war of attrition with politicians to his right, Netanyahu was certain that they could not siphon serious votes from his Likud party. Given that there were no formidable personalities in the center or on the left to challenge him, he was confident that he would strengthen his parliamentary position before the attorney general could decide about indicting him on corruption allegations.
As U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May learned in June 2017, however, snap elections to buttress parliamentary standing can backfire. May managed to retain her position, but ended up much weakened. The same may happen to Netanyahu. For him, this brief election season has been brutal, for multiple reasons, two of them critical. First, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit did not wait until after the election to release preliminary findings. Mandelblit announced last month that Netanyahu would be indicted in three pending cases, on charges that included bribery. The prime minister’s standing in the polls then took a dive.
Second, and no less ominous for Netanyahu, a new party (“Blue and White”) sprung up, with the support of three former military chiefs of staff. Benny Gantz, who had led the Israel Defense Forces from 2011 to 2015, was named the party’s head. When Gantz, widely perceived as competent and honest, gave his opening speech announcing his intention to run against Netanyahu, Israelis were riveted. Here was a man who spoke with respect about the current prime minister, even as he called for his defeat. He mentioned both Menachem Begin (from the right) and Yitzchak Rabin (from the left) as great patriots. He used the phrase “Jewish and democratic” several times, and listed social issues among his concerns. Polls showed that Israelis had reacted positively to Gantz’s opening volley. For the first time in many years, it seemed, there was a serious contender for Netanyahu’s job.
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While it is not surprising that Netanyahu found these challenges unsettling, what is stunning is the degree to which he has gone on the assault, not only against his rivals, but also against some of Israel’s democratic foundations in order to try to hold onto office.
Netanyahu’s first foray over the line was encouraging Israel’s right-wing parties to include in their bloc Otzma Yehudit, the Jewish Power party, which is overtly racist and calls for expelling Israel’s Arabs. Netanyahu was careful to do this through intermediaries, but no one had any doubt that this was his way of ensuring that the right would garner a few more votes come election day. Condemnation swiftly followed. Haaretz said that he had taken Israeli politics “to the gutter,” while the Times of Israel called the move both “despicable” and, in a column that followed, “a moral compromise that may ruin his legacy.” Rabbi Benny Lau, a leading Orthodox rabbi and Israeli public intellectual, claimed that a vote for Otzma Yehudit would be akin for voting for the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws. Even when threatened with a libel lawsuit, Rabbi Lau refused to apologize.
One might have thought after that reaction, Netanyahu would lay low. But, apparently unconcerned about long-term damage that he may be doing to the fabric of Israeli’s democracy, the prime minister continues to charge full speed ahead. A few days ago, Miri Regev, minister of culture and a member of the Likud, warned that Gantz would form a coalition that included Arab parties. That has never happened in Israeli history: The Arab parties rarely get enough votes to matter in coalition jockeying, and Israeli Arabs, despite being 20 percent of the population, are still seen as a fifth column in Israeli society, unwilling to declare that they recognize Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Regev’s taunt was thus ludicrous, but sufficiently incendiary that even Gantz felt compelled to respond with a statement that he would form a coalition with any party that is “Jewish and Zionist.”
In response to Regev’s claim, Rotem Sela, a popular Israeli model and actress, wrote on Instagram, “Dear god, there are also Arab citizens in this country. When the hell will someone in this government convey to the public that Israel is a state of all its citizens and that all people were created equal.” Sela’s comment might have passed mostly unnoticed, had Netanyahu not taken the bait. But he did, responding “Dear Rotem, an important correction: Israel is not a state of all its citizens. According to the nation-state law we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people — and not anyone else.”
That was a stunning claim, which even Netanyahu’s much-derided nation-state law did not make. Here was the prime minister stating openly that Israel’s Arab citizens do not count. Reaction was swift. Israel’s president, Reuben Rivlin said that Israel does not have “second class citizens.” Gantz claimed (probably correctly) that Begin, who founded the Likud, would never have tolerated Netanyahu in the party. And Gal Gadot, the Israeli actress who plays Wonder Woman in the recent film and is thus a national sensation, leapt to Sela’s defense, as well, strongly rebuking Netanyahu.
Now clearly willing to do absolutely anything to ensure his political survival, Netanyahu has essentially declared war on Israel’s democracy. Ayelet Shaked, Israel’s minister of justice (and a long-time Netanyahu associate though now running with Naftali Bennet against Netanyahu) publicly rebuked him for his ad hominem attacks on state prosecutors. Desperate for positive media coverage, Netanyahu threatened Israel’s freedom of the press by warning the iconic Army Radio Station that if the right was not given more exposure on the radio, he might shut it down. Even truth is no longer a value, apparently: Asked about his claim in a famed speech at Bar Ilan University that he supported the idea of a two-state solution, Netanyahu said this week, without hesitation, that he would never have agreed to it.
For many months now, some Israeli voices who were critical of Netanyahu (myself included) have denied that Netanyahu was intentionally channeling Donald Trump’s provocative attitude toward democracy, arguing that the prime minister was cozying up to the American president only because of Trump’s volatility and Israel’s need for American support in the face of Iran, Russia’s re-entry into the Middle East and other foreign policy concerns. Today, however, that argument rings hollow. Israel is now witness to a full-scale assault on its democracy by its own prime minister.
Because security concerns loom so large in Israel, and Netanyahu is still seen as “Mr. Security,” it remains quite possible that he will win the election. But that does not mean that he will be prime minister for long. He might win the election but fail to create a coalition, or he could form a coalition and then be formally indicted, at which point two-thirds of Israelis think he will have to resign. One way or another, the Netanyahu era seems to be approaching its end. How and when that will happen may actually be less important than the questions of who will replace him and whether Israel’s next administration can begin to repair the extensive damage done to its democracy by the man who seems certain that only he can save the Jewish state.
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Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."
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