By Ronald C. Kiener
Imagine for a minute a Trump transition that went a bit differently. Imagine that Donald Trump, instead of selecting Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State – or Mitt Romney, or David Petraeus, or Rudy Giuliani, or John Bolton – announced that he had no need for a Secretary of State, and would be simultaneously serving as President and the United States’ chief diplomat.
Imagine for a minute that Donald Trump, instead of selecting Steven Mnuchin, announced he had no need for a Secretary of the Treasury, and would be simultaneously serving as President, Secretary of State, and the national economy’s overseer. Imagine further that Trump declared himself Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, and then announced he alone would also be US Trade Representative.
Imagine the hue and cry from Congress, even from many of the Republican congressmen and senators whose standard-bearer had arrogated these crucial cabinet positions to his personage and his personal circle of unelected advisors.
Welcome to the current government of Israel. You may not know this: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu serves simultaneously as Foreign Minister, Treasury Minister, Communications Minister, and Minister for Regional Development. It’s the first time this has ever happened. This Supreme Prime Minister arrangement has resulted in a monumental failure of governance.
Imagine one last piece of the puzzle, which “dropped” this last week: Prime Minister Netanyahu is the subject of a series of criminal investigations, currently under seal, for unspecified bribery and kickback charges. His predecessor Ehud Olmert was himself convicted of precisely such crimes, was forced to resign as Prime Minister, and is now serving a prison sentence.
This is the second time Netanyahu has been investigated for bribery and kickback charges. Back in 1999, a substantial case had been assembled against Netanyahu. But Netanyahu had lost the 1999 election and announced his retirement from politics.
The Attorney General at the time decided Netanyahu had suffered enough, and declined to bring charges.
In the intervening years, Ehud Olmert found himself the center of a bribery scandal which forced his resignation and landed him in prison. At the same time, Netanyahu returned to politics, and continued his long-established practice of accepting (sometimes demanding) lavish gifts for himself and his family.
Now welcome to the current sad and sorry state of the current government of Israel.
In a riff on the old adage “all politics is local,” Henry Kissinger once said, “Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic policy.” In the case of Netanyahu’s Israel, all politics is domestic and dystopic. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has created an echo-chamber government with rot at its core. After eight years of failed Israeli diplomacy, after failing to deliver any of the promised economic reforms designed to repair Israel’s nightmare real estate crisis, Netanyahu has hit a diplomatic wall of international censure. Simultaneously, his former Cabinet Secretary and hand-picked Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit reluctantly agreed that enough damaging evidence has been adduced by government investigators to open a formal case against Netanyahu. In response, the PM/Foreign/Treasury/Communications/Regional Development autocrat has lashed out at the press, and attempted to distract his voters from the criminal investigation by pointing a finger at Barack Obama and John Kerry.
Israel’s judicial system and its rule of law has already incarcerated a corrupt Prime Minister who accepted envelopes of cash in exchange for influence. Ehud Olmert, facing a staggering array of corruption charges, stepped down from the Prime Ministership in 2008. Olmert was indicted in 2009, convicted in 2015 of fraud, breach of trust, and tax evasion, and began serving his 2-year sentence in 2016.
Despite Netanyahu’s unprecedented aggregation of ministerial powers, that same admirable judicial system and rule of law is now centered on Olmert’s successor.
The pathetic image of a man who likes expensive cigars and whiskies, who enjoys overseas trips to 5-star hotels, and who will trade influence for the sake of upper-crust trivialities, seems completely at odds with the image that “King Bibi” has fostered. It’s also hard to conceive that the successor to Olmert would allow himself to be tripped up by the same venal tastes of opulence.
Israel is a democracy. It is a democracy that has been plagued by corruption. At this moment, we are at the beginning of a long process that will likely result in the second ignoble downfall of an elected Israeli leader. That is the true strength of Israel’s democratic rule.
Netanyahu will not go down without a strenuous fight for survival. His megalomaniacal accumulation of state power is something he will not relinquish gracefully. The Watergate scandal produced the infamous “Saturday night massacre” in which President Richard Nixon dismissed a special prosecutor, prompting the principled resignations of the Attorney General and his deputy. It is not difficult to imagine Netanyahu attempting a similar quashing of the current investigation should it cut too close to the bone.
Waiting in the wings are Netanyahu’s political foes, of which he has many – in his own ruling Likud party, amongst his jockeying cabinet ministers, and from the parliamentary opposition. It looks like a good bet that there will be a new Prime Minister of Israel before this New Year ends.
John Kerry got it wrong: the most immediate threat to Israel’s democracy comes not from Israeli settlements or the demography of a bi-national state.
The most immediate threat to Israel’s democracy comes from its Prime Minister.
Ronald C. Kiener is Professor of Religion at Trinity College, and director of its Jewish Studies Program.
NOTE: Owing to a production error, the print version of this op-ed erroneously attributes this article to the Ledger Editorial Board. In fact, the op-ed is written by Ronald C. Kiener and the views expressed are his alone. We apologize for the error.