Pink champagne and fine cigars abound at Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Jerusalem home. What does this luxurious lifestyle have to do with the state of Israel’s democracy? Quite a bit, and its implications are less than favorable.
There is no doubt that the state of Israel holds a unique position within the international sphere. As of now, Israel has managed to maintain its status as the only democracy in the Middle East in accordance with the Democracy Index. Being located in one of the most politically volatile areas of the globe, this is not a feat to be taken for granted. Though it is important to recognize that Israel’s treatment of minorities and disputed territories raises valid criticisms regarding Israel’s true democratic nature, overall the state has maintained a stable, if flawed, parliamentary democracy since its inception in 1948.
Enter Benjamin Netanyahu. Bibi, as he is commonly referred to, was first elected prime minister of Israel in 1996, and is now serving his fourth term in the position as a member of the right-wing Likud party. Lately, however, Netanyahu’s premiership has been clouded by a flurry of scandal and suspicion surrounding various problematic actions taken over the course of his time in office. These have resulted in incredibly serious allegations of corruption, bribery, and fraud which would easily put Netanyahu in prison if convicted. Beyond undermining the legitimacy of his own office, Netanyahu’s actions as prime minister carry dangerous implications for the future of Israel’s democracy.
The first major case Netanyahu is being questioned for is called Case 1000. This case involves allegations that Netanyahu accepted around $300,000 worth of gifts from two prominent businessmen, Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian businessman James Packer. In exchange for a steady flow champagne and cigars, Bibi allegedly offered these billionaires numerous favors that fundamentally undermine the democratic values a prime minister is expected to uphold. These favors included attempts at passing legislation that would ensure major tax breaks for the billionaires, lobbying the US secretary of state to extend Milchan’s visa, and helping Milchan become a shareholder in a major Israeli television station. The fact that Netanyahu would abuse his position of power in order to financially assist these billionaires in exchange for lavish gifts is in itself a damning statement against the lawfulness of his authority. His manipulation of legislative processes, relationships with powerful foreign officials, and economic agency in Israel is indicative of a lack of adherence to democratic norms that are necessary to maintain a stable and trusted democracy.
The second case against Netanyahu, Case 2000, also involves a troubling breach of trust and distancing from critical democratic norms. This case revolves around allegations that Bibi struck a deal with the head of Israel’s best-selling newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, such that Netanyahu would receive more favorable coverage from the newspaper. In return, Netanyahu would help weaken Yediot Aharonot’s major competitor, Israel Hayom. In a particularly damning turn of events, police obtained an audio recording taken by the prime minister’s former chief of staff in which Netanyahu discusses the mutual financial benefits of the deal with Arnon Mozes, Yediot Aharonot’s publisher. Netanyahu’s blatant disregard for the democratic value of freedom of press in this case is particularly alarming. His willingness to manipulate Israel’s top media sources in his favor marks a blow at the integrity of an independent media, and thus a dangerous turn away from true freedom. An independent media able to fairly inform the people is absolutely necessary for the maintenance of a stable democracy, and Netanyahu’s dealings undermine this principle considerably.
With all of this being said, this is admittedly not the first time that a prime minister or other top Israeli official has been accused of bribery, fraud, or corruption. What makes Netanyahu’s case unique and particularly disturbing is the way in which he has handled the allegations against him. On February 13th, following an investigation Case 1000 and 2000, the Israeli police recommended that Netanyahu be charged with corruption on the charges of bribery, breach of trust, and fraud, citing that there was sufficient evidence for an indictment. In the past, top Israeli officials who have been subject to similar recommendations have resigned, such as in the case of Yitzhak Rabin in 1977 and Ehud Olmert in 2008. Netanyahu, on the other hand, has faced the allegations with considerable resistance. In a live public broadcast responding to the police recommendation, Netanyahu stated that “Nothing will have sway and nothing will sway me, not even the incessant attacks against me.” Despite the damning evidence against him and the marked historical precedent of respecting the judgement of the Israeli police system, Netanyahu has insisted on retaining his office. In doing this, Netanyahu engages in a form of executive aggrandizement in which he undermines the system of checks and balances meant to keep officials like himself from abusing their power. His defiance erodes at the very integrity of the Israeli police and judiciary, both of which should, in a functioning democracy, be able to check the power of the prime minister. In attacking these institutions, Netanyahu further weakens the integrity of Israeli democracy.
Meanwhile, the cases and evidence against Netanyahu keep piling up. Cases 3000 and 4000, currently under investigation, also revolve around separate and deeply concerning abuses of power and corruption on the part of Netanyahu. In light of the ever-increasing allegations against him, it appears Bibi is now doing anything he can to preserve his office. In a disturbing close call earlier this week, Israel almost experienced a snap general election which would have been held a year and a half before its scheduled time. It is suspected that Netanyahu was motivated to support this early election due to a recent uptick in public support according to Israeli opinion polls, offering him a sort of golden window of opportunity to be reelected before more progress is made on the corruption cases against him. Although the snap election was avoided and its mechanism would have been technically legal, the prospect of it occurring, in conjunction with Netanyahu’s support of it, should be deeply concerning for the state of Israel’s democracy. In “On Democratic Backsliding”, Nancy Bermeo refers to this as a type of election manipulation and a warning sign of democratic backsliding, as its apparent legality masks the darker underlying motivations behind it. As elections are one of the most important means of checking authority in any democracy, it is paramount that this process not be tampered with by any official regardless of their insistence on maintaining office.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s premiership is simply bad news for the state of Israel’s democracy. Not only do his corrupt behaviors greatly undermine the key pillars of any democratic society, but his responses to the investigations and evidence against him are equally disturbing. Israel faces a threat to democratic norms and principles so long as Netanyahu is able to retain his office and defy the checks and balances meant to keep the democracy functional, fair, and representative of the people. The ensuing breakdown of trust in the government, police, judiciary, and media as a result of his corruption and defiance is leading Israel down a dangerous path of democratic erosion. Unfortunately, the democratic oasis of the Middle East may not be so democratic for much longer.
Kershner, Isabel. “Benjamin Netanyahu Is Questioned in 3rd Corruption Case in Israel.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Mar. 2018.
Halbfinger, David. “The Case Against Netanyahu: Highlights From the Police Investigation.”The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 Feb. 2018.
Horovitz, David. “The Weakening of Israeli Democracy.” The Times of Israel, 27 Feb. 2018.
“Israeli Government Ends Feud That Sparked Snap Election Talk.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 14 Mar. 2018
Bermeo, Nancy. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 27, no. 1, 2016, doi:10.1353/jod.2016.0012.
Avishai, Bernard. “The Police Case Against Bibi Netanyahu.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 14 Feb. 2018.
“The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, infographics.economist.com/2018/DemocracyIndex/.
Picture courtesy of The New York Times.