Aspiring autocrats do not necessarily need to seek out ways to legitimise their attacks on the institutions of democracy, such as free media, checks and balances, and civil society. Sometimes, such legitimacy is granted to them by the forces beyond the control of humanity, by forces of nature that we refer to as disasters. Indeed, a would-be autocrat most likely rubs his hands in glee when faced with a natural disaster, or a pandemic, provided he believes he can handle the situation without risking his position of power. We are, primarily, creatures that place an extraordinary emphasis on our own survival and our own physical security, naturally so, and this allows us to accept and rationalise decisive actions taken by powerful leaders in times of crisis. Moreover, such crises even trigger us to surrender some of our rights to the government, for promises of safety and security. No society is free from this. Even the United States, in the atmosphere of fear following the 11th of September attacks, silently allowed the USA PATRIOT Act to pass in 2001, giving the executive and its branches unprecedented power over the privacy of an individual. The ongoing CoViD-19 pandemic – officially labelled a pandemic by the World Health Organization on 11th March 2020 – provides one other example to us, as well as an opportunity for leaders. The caveat here, of course, is that these leaders need to be capable of handling the crisis in a manner that will be perceived as competent by their constituents. Otherwise, a disaster of the sort CoViD-19 presents is no different than any other, with the potential to bring down a government.
Take Israel, as an example. Prime Minister Netanyahu has most likely been given the chance of a lifetime by this pandemic, provided he can handle the situation, prevent Israel from suffering a collapsed healthcare system, and make sure that Israel does not see thousands of deaths due to the disease. Just three months ago, on the 28th of January, Attorney General Mandelbilt indicted Netanyahu on three separate charges of corruption. His response to the entire judicial process against him has been the textbook response we have come to expect from populists who care little for the rule of law: that the entire prosecution was a political ploy focused on taking him down, as opposed to ensuring that justice is provided. The elections of March 2020 proved inconclusive despite Netanyahu’s Likud party winning three more seats than his main contender Benny Gantz and his Kahol Lavan party. For a moment, it seemed as though history would be written: for the first time in its history, Israel witnessed the co-operation between the far-right nationalists under Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu and Arabs under Odeh’s Joint List, about to co-operate to allow the formation of a government against Netanyahu. All things considered, it certainly appeared that Netanyahu’s days of power – and freedom – were over.
Come mid-March, however, the picture changed. CoViD-19 became a global pandemic, both officially and in the perceptions of the public, and fear of the newfound disease was exacerbated by private media’s clamouring for clicks and views. Cases spread almost exponentially, and Israel, too, got its share of infections. What followed then was almost expert political manoeuvring by Netanyahu. The Prime Minister has in the past tried to manipulate the media: an attempted deal with the publisher of the daily Yediot Aharanot, Arnon Mozes, who is currently being indicted alongside Netanyahu in what is known as “Case 2000”. Another case is an illicit deal with the telecommunications company Bezeq, whose former boss Shaul Elovitch, too, is now the subject of an indictment. Both examples are of Netanyahu aiming to get positive media coverage in exchange for favours, such as regulatory favours in the case of Bezeq. In light of these cases against him, Netanyahu had aimed to obtain immunity from prosecution from the legislature. The Israeli legislature, the Knesset, being a sovereign parliament, held the power to do so. Indeed, the Knesset holds supreme power in Israel, for good or ill. This failed to materialise, however, as the elections in March were once more inconclusive at best – from Netanyahu’s perspective – and against him, at worst. The CoViD-19 pandemic came in right at this moment. On March the 15th, a district court announced that Netanyahu’s trial would be postponed for more than two months. The internal intelligence service, commonly known as the Shin Bet, was given widespread powers for monitoring and surveillance, ostensibly in order to combat the spread of CoViD-19. This may even be so, but who is to say for certain that these powers granted to the intelligence service, an inherently secretive organisation that is by its nature difficult to hold to account, will be taken away once the crisis passes? The High Court of Israel – similar but not identical to the US Supreme Court in function – has overruled some authorities given to the police and Shin Bet, thankfully. Finally, in what I believe to be a true blow against Israeli democracy, Netanyahu has utilised the authority of the Knesset Speaker, Yuli Edelstein from his own Likud party, to prevent the newly elected lawmakers from gathering in the first place. With the resignation of Yuli Edelstein, it was thought that Kahol Lavan would spearhead the election of a Kahol Lavan lawmaker, one positioned against Netanyahu. In a surprise move, however, Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz nominated himself to the post, and agreed to a unity government with Netanyahu and Likud, with Netanyahu to remain Prime Minister for a year, after which Gantz will assume the role: a rotating Prime Ministership. Whether Netanyahu stays faithful to his promise of leaving the position to Gantz after 18 months, we shall see in time. There is very little reason to expect this to occur, however, and there is little doubt that Netanyahu will do whatever he can to reduce Gantz to a political nobody during these eighteen months.
This move shattered the once-powerful Kahol Lavan alliance. Gantz’s former partners in Kahol Lavan, Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid and Moshe Ya’alon of Telem, have decried him for betraying them, for joining up with Netanyahu. There is little doubt that Lapid and Ya’alon will tear into Gantz from the opposition lines. The liberal wing in Israel appear, thus far, to be divided on the issue: two separate opinion pieces on Haaretz, a popular liberal daily, appeared, with one praising Gantz’s action while the other denounced it. The left is shattered, with the once powerful Labor Party a mere shadow of its former self. Indeed, this move by Gantz may have well granted Netanyahu salvation, salvation that he was able to obtain due to the sense of urgency of forming a government, an urgency triggered by the very pandemic that today has many of us shut in their homes, hoping to avoid infection. Had it not been for this urgency, a first in Israel’s history could have been accomplished, with great hopes for its democracy. Benny Gantz appears to have discarded this opportunity, and Israel’s democracy appears to be under threat. This is not to say that Netanyahu will necessarily descend into the type of authoritarianism we are used to seeing from Vladimir Putin, or even the “illiberal democracy” of Viktor Orban, but rather, the normalisation of a disregard for the rule of law that best has parallels with Donald Trump. In the end, it was this CoViD-19 pandemic that allowed Netanyahu to survive the way he has. Gantz, too, is complicit in this. In trading the principles of democratic stability for a position of power, as detailed in the coalition agreement, he has played a role in further normalising the disregard for the rule of law, the notion that an indicted Prime Minister can continue to govern. We should remember that democracy does not die overnight, but instead dies slowly, with slow steps slowly dragging it to its end. The normalisation of such incidents is but one step among many.