Were the Blue and White Party generals attempting a promissory coup against an executive aggrandizing Likud Prime Minister? The rhetoric of military generals attempting to “protect” democracy and an executive aggrandizer desperate to maintain power
In “On Democratic Backsliding”, Nancy Bermeo arguesthat modern democratic backsliding mostly takes the form of either promissory coups, executive aggrandizement or strategic voter manipulation. These forms have replaced classic coups d’états, executive coups, and election-day vote fraud. Bermeo claimsthat although less blatant, the new forms are harder to spot because they “are legitimated through the very institutions that democracy promoters have prioritized.” On April 9, 2019, Israeli voters were offered a choice between the Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Benjamin Gantz’s Blue and White Party if they were voting for one of the two major parties up for election. Netanyahu satisfies the criteria associated with executive aggrandizing backsliders. The Blue and White Party is led by four former generals who, with the exception of Ya’alon had never run for elected office. The generals, led by Ganz, used rhetoric that sounded like generals attempting to stage an elected promissory coup. Although the Blue and White Party did not stage a coup, their campaign focused on former generals attempting to “protect” democracy is rhetoric more closely associated with backsliding than with liberal consolidated democracy.
Netanyahu is a democratic backslider practicing a form of executive aggrandizement through partisan degradation, violating norms, and strategic voter manipulation. Bermeo definesexecutive aggrandizement as a slow-paced phenomenon that occurs when the elected executive legally weakens checks on executive power, and “hampers the power of opposition forces to challenge executive preferences.” In Bermeo’s formulation, this is commonly done through attacking the free press, undercutting judicial autonomy, and strategic voter manipulation. After journalists Ilana Dayan and Raviv Drucker published articles that were deeply critical of his administration and personal corruption, Prime Minister Netanyahu undermined freedom of the press, according to Freedom House’s 2017 Freedom of the Press Report. He did so by using the Office of the Prime Minister’s Official Facebook to denounce Dayan and Drucker. He has also attempted to undermine judicial autonomyby attacking Israel’s Attorney General and the validity of the Attorney General’s investigation into him by claiming that the investigations into his corruption are a partisan set-up. Additionally, Haaretz reportedon April 10, 2019 that Netanyahu is trying to undermine judicial norms by trying to negotiate a parliamentary immunity statue into his coalition agreement that would bar him from standing trial while he is in office. Reportshave also emerged that he and his party engaged in strategic voter manipulation by hiring the Klaizler-Inbar PR firm to plant cameras in predominately Arab polling places. Accusationsclaim that by placing cameras there, his party was trying to reduce Arab-minority turnout, thereby increasing his chance of winning the election. Therefore, Prime Minister Netanyahu fits Bermeo’s conception of a democratic backslider as he has undermined norms and institutions that check his power and used strategic voter manipulation to decrease the numbers of votes in polling locations where he was likely to perform poorly.
While the generals in the Blue and White party did not directly attempt a promissory coup, elements of their campaign shared underlying similarities with those associated by Bermeo with promissory coups. The stated goal of those leading promissory coups is to defend “democratic legality.” In Israel, this manifested itself by Gantz’s claim in an interviewwith the Times of Israel that “If [Israeli voters] want a positive alternative to [the collapse of Israeli democracy], they have only one option — Blue and White at the ballot box, and nothing else”. While claiming to protect democracy may sound admirable, when the generals at the head of the Blue and White party claim they are getting involved in politics to protect the system, it sounds awfully like the statements of other promissory coups leaders trying to protect their country’s democracy. Bermeo arguesmilitary leaders tend to be correct in their assessment in their claim that the ousted leaders were bad for their country’s democracy or incompetent, which explains why expectations usually go up in the wake of promissory coups. Likewise, liberals in Israel argued that the generals from the Blue and White party could save Israeli democracy in articles such as David Suissa’sop-ed, “Can the IDF Save Israel’s Democracy?” However, Bermeo notes that those military leaders have a poor record of actually saving their country’s democracy.
Although the Blue and White party did not actually attempt a coup, their rhetoric should alarm those studying democracy in Israel, as it indicates a violation of the norms associated with consolidated liberal democracy. Gantz claimed in an interview with The Times of Israel that Israeli voters had “only one option” if they wanted to protect Israeli democracy. Claims like that, especially when coming from the military elite, are not associated with liberal democracy. Rather, they are associated with backsliders, similar to Netanyahu, who said during his campaign launch that electing the other parties would mark the “ending [of] the Jewish democratic state.” Lipset argues in “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy” that in consolidated liberal democracies the stakes of politics are lower and opposition members recognize the legitimacy of their opposition. They, therefore, refrain from making those type of claims about their party or themselves being the country’s only hope and that the other choice will end the democracy. Furthermore, in liberal democracy opposition leaders presume that they will recapture power eventually and it will be easier to govern if people believe in the system and, more importantly, because they still retain measures of power despite losing the election. Therefore, Israelis voting for Blue and White, while not voting for the executive aggrandizing Netanyahu, displayed voting behavior that portrays a deep skepticism towards norms associated with liberal democracy and supported a leader who sounded alarming like those leading promissory coups, or, at the very least, indicate a lack of faith in Israeli democracy.
Image Photo by Reuters, “Voting box in the last Israeli election in 2015.” (photo credit: REUTERS) in Jerusalem Post