Netanyahu’s curse

When you are the longest serving Prime Minister of a democratic country, it is safe to presume that you have…

Netanyahu’s curse

File photo of Benjamin Netanyahu (Photo: AFP)

When you are the longest serving Prime Minister of a democratic country, it is safe to presume that you have cracked the ‘formula’ and are personally ambitious beyond normal imagination. History of democracies suggests that each of these longserving leaders increasingly became more illiberal, undemocratic and populist as time passed to perpetuate their stranglehold. Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel (18 June 1996-6 July 1999; 31 March 2009-13 June 2021 and now 29 December 2022 onwards) personifies the amoral template of an hyper-insecure, increasingly authoritarian and ambitious leader who will go to any extent to remain in power.

Presiding over Israel’s most rightwing government composed of the ultra-right/religious politicians (including some convicted of racism), Netanyahu goes about hitting new lows towards selfpreservation. Netanyahu’s tenor and dark impact has already made the likes of Moshe Dayan, Menachem Begin or even Ariel Sharon, seem like relative doves.

The entire edifice of Israeli democracy is set for a regressive transformation as it recants against its own official description of its political structure (embassies.gov.il): “The system is based on the principles of separation of powers, with checks and balances, in which the executive branch (the government) is subject to the confidence of the legislative branch (the Knesset) and the independence of the judiciary is guaranteed by law”. It is this very predication of ‘checks and balances’, with the ostensible ‘independence of judiciary’ that is getting attacked directly.


The surreptitious idea of weakening the judiciary in a democracy is not new, as many fringe elements in the past did posit such thoughts earlier ~ but it was always thought to be too revolutionary and counter-productive, even for right-wing parties. But like all ruthlessly ambitious politicians who can go to any extent over a period to ‘normalise’ the possibilities of the absurd, Netanyahu has passed a bill that renders him and his politics impervious to judicial oversight, despite commitments of ‘checks and balances’.

Accused of promoting crony-capitalism by extending favours to a select few tycoons in return for gratification and a supportive press, Netanyahu was facing judicial trials that could have evicted him from power, if convicted. Netanyahu used the ageold pretext of ‘reforms’ as used by all authoritarians to diminish the power of ‘checks and balance’ institutions, to justify his brazen steps that now virtually allow him a free and unchecked run in office.

Through such means, the accused will gleefully override judicial pronouncements without any fear, and will also decide who can become judges in the future. Basically now, Netanyahu can appoint anyone, irrespective of propriety, deny a right or privilege, ride roughshod over constitutional precedent, implement any policy without restraint, extend terms or virtually do anything that suits his politics, as the only institution that could put a spoke in his wheel i.e., the judiciary, is now defanged and rendered ineffectual.

The doctrine of ‘reasonableness’ that was invoked to justify a judicial intervention whenever any perceived excess of partisanship, corruption or unconstitutionality was felt can no longer come into play, anymore. Essentially, Netanyahu can do as he likes with no limits as to where the buck stops, hereinafter. Netanyahu has changed the outlook of his Likud party, which though nationalist and conservative was given to inherent liberality, freedom of speech and the rule of law. Not anymore, as it increasingly resembles the hardline autocracies of Hungary or Turkey.

The idea of Israel as a liberal, secular and democratic nation is in question with Netanyahu making cause with toxic and openly bigoted politicians like Ben-Gvir, whom the previous Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had described as a far bigger threat to Israel than a nucleararmed Iran! BenGvir has been made the Minister of National Security, a position of huge impact, but given to one who has been convicted earlier (of incitement to racism and supporting terror organisations) and never served in the Israeli Army.

Nineteen-year-old Ben-Gvir had infamously appeared on a TV screen with a Cadillac car emblem (supposedly broken from the car of the then Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzak Rabin) and was heard exhorting, “Just like we got to this emblem, we can get to Rabin”. Three weeks later, a right-wing student shot Yitzak Rabin dead at a peace rally. Peace, societal harmony and secularism are an anathema for the likes of Netanyahu and his team whose politics can only thrive in an environment of hate mongering, polarisation and pandering to majoritarianism.

Even by Netanyahu’s very low standards on inclusivity and secularism, in his third coming as the Prime Minister, he has upped (or lowered) the ante to its vilest and most despicable levels ever. Consequently, the two-state solution on Palestine (which is India’s official preference also) is buried for all practical purposes and the process of usurping more land, legitimizing the illegal settlements, and the project of diminishing the Israeli Arabs is sadly on track. It’s not just politics but the delicate social-fabric of Jewish-Arab rapprochement that is at stake.

Despite Netanyahu’s current bravado afforded by the numbers in Parliament, Israeli citizenry has rallied against him on the streets with an eclectic mix of intelligentsia, veterans, bureaucrats and even reservists ‘voicing’ their fears. Polls indicate a two-third disdain for Netanyahu but his voluble supporters amongst the extreme-right wing and religiously fired constituents are drowning the dissonance. While snap polls indicate a loss for Netanyahu today.

But with his latest move which frankly could lead to unprecedented possibilities and policy changes in the future, polls held at a later stage could give very different results, owing to legalized manipulations. The political rhetoric in Israel is getting fiery and extremely divisive and there is no clarity as to how far the agenda will go? The likes of Netanyahu may make for successful politicians who can win by hook or crook (and set records for longevity), but the impact of their unbridled machinations and vitriol can poison society for generations.

Perhaps unbeknownst to Netanyahu’s frenzied supporters (even if in a minority now), he has not muscled the agenda of Israel as cavalierly claimed by them, but weakened the idea of a nation that was Israel and strengthened the arguments of those whom he routinely calls his ‘enemies’. Netanyahu’s electoral victory could be the irreparable loss of Israel’s character and therefore, future.

The writer is Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd) and former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar islands and Puducherry)