In Israel, pandemic tests democracy’s immune system

Sebastian Scheiner/AP
An Israeli woman holds the national flag during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on March 23, 2020. The opposition has accused Mr. Netanyahu of using the coronavirus crisis as cover to undermine the country’s democratic institutions.
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Is the coronavirus a vulnerability for democracies, as leaders marshal all the power at their disposal to address the crisis? Some see Israel as a canary in a coal mine.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has taken swift, aggressive action to contain COVID-19, winning praise from supporters. But critics say he and his Likud party have taken advantage of the crisis to attempt a “coup” against their rivals, who won a majority of parliamentary seats in recent elections.

Why We Wrote This

Civilian compliance can be more difficult to bring about in free societies. Israel illustrates the concerns around governments taking unusual measures that undermine democratic institutions, even temporarily.

In the latest standoff, the Supreme Court has intervened to force the current speaker of the parliament to step aside, and he has refused to comply. The former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s equivalent of the FBI, warned that the government had effectively disabled the judiciary and legislature. And an Israeli historian of international renown has dubbed it “the first coronavirus dictatorship.”

Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem, says that the broader conclusion from the Israeli case is “that under the disguise of the corona crisis, reckless politicians can use it to violate democratic norms and conventions cultivated over decades.”

Amid a nationwide near total lockdown, some half a million Israelis gathered at a virtual demonstration online this weekend to protest what they call an attempted coup by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s transitional government under the guise of protecting citizens from the coronavirus.

Last week, the justice minister sent out an order in the middle of the night to shut down the courts on the eve of Mr. Netanyahu’s trial on corruption charges. The government took measures to track citizens’ contact with those who tested positive by using geolocation data from their cellphones without the authorization of the parliament, in the name of halting the spread of the virus. And Mr. Netanyahu’s allies blocked the Israeli parliament from even opening, following recent elections in which his rivals won the majority of Knesset seats.

What the government is really protecting, critics say, is the prime minister’s precarious place in power. While the specifics of the alleged power grab may be rooted in Israel’s political crisis following three stalemate elections in a year, they paint it as a cautionary tale for other democracies strained by the current crisis. “The first coronavirus dictatorship,” quipped Israeli author and historian Yuval Noah Harari, known more for his international bestsellers like “Sapiens” than for commenting on Israeli politics.

Why We Wrote This

Civilian compliance can be more difficult to bring about in free societies. Israel illustrates the concerns around governments taking unusual measures that undermine democratic institutions, even temporarily.

“Netanyahu is trying to exploit the situation of the pandemic to hold on to power and take more extreme measures than he would if this crisis was not going on,” says Gershom Gorenberg, an Israeli historian and journalist. “I think it’s a warning elsewhere that while the [coronavirus] crisis has to be dealt with, the need for democratic controls are even greater in a crisis situation.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, we’ve removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

In an interview with Channel 12, Mr. Netanyahu was asked if he was overstating the threat of coronavirus in order to keep himself in power after already serving four terms as prime minister. “Anyone who looks at what I am doing sees I am working for the country. ... I am doing this as I stand on the deck and navigate through the icebergs,” he said. “Behind me are other countries which have become like Titanics that are sinking.”

Indeed, supporters praise Mr. Netanyahu as a veteran leader who moved swiftly to adopt stringent measures to address the crisis, including police shutting down gatherings of more than 10 people and investigating people who violated their quarantine.

Gayil Talshir, a political science professor at Hebrew University, cautions that democracies in crisis need more supervision, including by civil rights organizations and judicial systems, in order to protect the system.

“The power concentrated in the hands of government is immense and therefore especially in times of crisis you need more supervision, more caution, more attention to individual rights, not less,” says Dr. Talshir.

She says leaders who suggest that a “deep state” apparatus might be trying to undermine them, such as U.S. President Donald Trump and the leaders of Hungary and Poland, are already inclined to try to take more power for themselves – and a crisis like this could accelerate that tendency. “There’s a threat that they would use an emergency time to weaken democratic institutions and gain even more power,” she says.

Netanyahu ally defies Supreme Court order

The power struggle between Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party and their rivals has come to a head over the speakership of the parliament.

After the recent election, President Reuven Rivlin tapped Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party to form a governing coalition.

However, Mr. Netanyahu has continued to act as prime minister and Likud’s Yuli Edelstein has continued to serve as speaker of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

On Monday, following a complaint from Mr. Gantz’s party, Israel’s Supreme Court said the speaker should hold a vote that would enable the Knesset to fully function after a new parliament was sworn in last week.

For days Mr. Edelstein had objected to doing so, citing public health concerns and claiming that such a vote would jeopardize talks for an emergency national unity government between Likud and Blue and White. Critics say Likud simply does not want to cede power. One reason is that Blue and White and its allies could use their majority status to pass laws that make it difficult for Mr. Netanyahu to continue in office with his current legal problems, which include indictments in three criminal cases.

Last week a call went out via social media and text messages to protest outside the Knesset. Activists drove into Jerusalem from around the country, black flags waving from their cars. Several arrests were made, including of the former commander of Israel’s top special forces unit.

“These protests show that Israelis are not willing to accept such violations to our democratic norms,” says Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.

Among those who spoke at this weekend’s virtual demonstration were Elyakim Rubinstein, former attorney general and former vice president of the Supreme Court, and Yuval Diskin, former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s equivalent of the FBI. Mr. Diskin warned the government had effectively disabled the judiciary and legislature.

Yair Fink, who heads Darkenu (“Our Way” in Hebrew), a nonpartisan civil rights group that helped organize the demonstration, said, “It is precisely in this time, when we are forbidden to congregate, that some have chosen to cynically exploit this situation to chip away at the foundations upon which our state was founded.”

Yet despite the outcry over the weekend, Justice Minister Amir Ohana and other Netanyahu allies said on Monday that Mr. Edelstein, the speaker of parliament, should ignore the Supreme Court’s order.

“I won’t agree to ultimatums,” Mr. Edelstein declared in a statement Tuesday, calling the intervention of the justice system in parliamentary business “out of place.” 

The case for and against unusual measures in a crisis

Zion Bouskila, chair of the Likud branch in the southern town of Netivot, says democracy is sacrosanct, but that at this time of an unprecedented national health crisis that could crash Israel’s economy, the focus should be on forging a unity government.

“I don’t think Netanyahu is taking advantage of coronavirus, he’s fighting to save the country,” he says. “As for the courts and the political process, they will return to normal after the crisis is handled.”

For Dr. Talshir of Hebrew University, one of the most disturbing aspects of Mr. Netanyahu’s behavior is how it sows doubt that a democracy is what is needed to rule a country in times of crisis.

“This is more threatening than just the manipulations we are seeing,” she says.

Mr. Plesner, a former member of Knesset, says the shock of the pandemic makes it challenging for people to respond to the undermining of democratic institutions, particularly the temporary shutdown of the Knesset, which he terms “a severe and unwarranted violation.”

“The broader conclusion from the Israeli case,” says Mr. Plesner, “is that we can say that under the disguise of the corona crisis, reckless politicians can use it to violate democratic norms and conventions cultivated over decades.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, we’ve removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

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