Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images via JTA)

Israel’s Supreme Court needs to hold Netanyahu accountable for corruption charges, not increase his power in a time of crisis.

While some Israelis are breathing a sigh of relief as their never-ending elections finally came to an end, I am filled with fear. The pandemic is being weaponized as a tool to fast-forward the erosion of democracy.

Due to COVID-19, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled May 6 that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is allowed to form a new government even while under indictment for corruption charges. At the end of three inconclusive elections and three criminal corruption charges, Bibi is still in power. It’s an abuse of power amidst a crisis. To put it in an American context, it’s an anti-FDR decision.

While the high court is usually progressive, during this time of crisis they gave Netanyahu the go ahead to form a government and stay on as prime minister while Benny Gantz becomes premier, despite Netanyahu’s many indictments. Bibi promised that they will swap roles in 18 months. It would surprise no one if “King Bibi” made a power play that forced Gantz to the sidelines with diminished power. Israelis of a certain age will remember when Yitzchak Shamir did not withhold his side of the deal made with Shimon Peres when the outcome of the 1984 elections left the Knesset in a stalemate.

An incumbent leader – Bibi – can argue that experience and knowledge of minutia is a good reason to stay in power. A neophyte – Gantz – cast adrift in the craziness will not be able to respond properly to the crises.

While I am not in favor of activist courts, Israel’s high court has often provided balance to a more politically right-wing agenda in the Knesset. For instance, as West Bank settlements continued to be built in 2014, the high court ruled to close the Amona outpost and evacuate it. This was during a time when the Obama/Netanyahu relationship was dicey and the Israeli government acted with less oversight from its ally.

In another recent example, in 2017 the court ruled in favor of a female plaintiff who had been asked to move her seat because an ultra-Orthodox man had refused to sit next to her on an El Al flight from Newark to Tel Aviv, thereby helping to offset the Rabbinate’s outsized power over an otherwise largely secular society.

Israel has responded to the coronavirus relatively well, compared to other nations. Following strict lockdown orders, the country is flattening their curve, and has not had an exponential growth, signaling that they have the situation under control. To the relief of parents, the country is reopening many schools. Foreign college students will be let in soon. The positive news is an easy selling point to keep the leadership in place come the proposed swap in 18 months. There have been only 281 fatalities in a country with the population of New York City, and buses and museums are open with minor restrictions. Still, there might be a second increase in cases as social distancing rules ease up.

If the situation becomes dramatically worse, fear is a tactic to hypnotize the masses and maintain the status quo, shutting down movement for a second time and allowing the Bibi government to keep a tight hold on things. But if the situation continues to improve, Netanyahu can take credit for it. It’s almost a win-win for him.

Let’s look at Hungary as an example of what could come: Prime Minister Victor Orbán’s government revised the criminal code in the wake of the outbreak, allowing for up to five years in prison for those who spread “fake news” about the virus. That could easily be extended to any voice of dissent; Orbán has a history of violently quashing political speech in his country.

On the home front, there is concern about the U.S. election, which seems likely to take place largely via mail-in voting ballots. President Trump helped choose the new postmaster general, a political donor and outsider with no postal experience. The general is appointed by a board of nine members chosen by the president with the consent of the Senate. As states decide to opt for mail-in voting, the postmaster general might move to defund these projects, seriously inhibiting voting in rural areas and states with older populations who don’t want to risk their health visiting a voting booth. The president recently threatened to cut funding to Michigan after the Michigan Secretary of State sent mail-in ballot applications to registered voters, a growing practice among election officials. He baselessly accused the Secretary of State, Jocelyn Benson, of engaging in fraud. Already, we can see the election and voters’ power in jeopardy.

As concerns grow about the impact on global democracy, with individual voting rights weakening and governments using the balagan [chaos] to their advantage by furthering their agendas,  Israel is no different. Leaders now have carte blanche to carry on as they wish. We should all be worried.

Eli Reiter is a Global Activist Fellow for the New Israel Fund.

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