JERUSALEM—Using the coronavirus crisis as cover, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is making a power grab unprecedented in Israeli history, and the example may be relevant to other countries as the crisis grows.
His government effectively shut down the Israeli judiciary in the dead of night last Sunday when Justice Minister Amir Ohana, a Netanyahu confidant, decreed that the court system would operate at a reduced capacity, as it would in a state of emergency, which has not yet been declared nationwide.
The first consequence of Ohana’s move was to postpone by two months Netanyahu’s trial on corruption charges, which had been scheduled to open on March 17.
On Wednesday, Yuli Edelstein, the speaker of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, refused to convene the house on the grounds that doing so could harm efforts to establish a government of national unity to solve the political stalemate which has paralyzed Israel for over a year.
With the judiciary and the parliament effectively neutralized, Netanyahu—who failed to win reelection in the Israeli elections after his third try, on March 2—is ruling the nation more or less by fiat.
At 1 a.m. on Tuesday morning, Netanyahu used emergency powers to order unilaterally the Israeli internal security agency, the Shin Bet, to deploy cellphone monitoring technology to trace the movements of citizens diagnosed with the coronavirus— or those suspected of being carriers.
The extent of the decree is not fully detailed, but it allows the government access to an unknown amount of information regarding an unknown number of citizens. It’s supposed to be reviewed—maybe a few weeks from now.
Netanyahu has served as a caretaker prime minister since December 2018, through three unresolved elections which left him and his top opponent, the centrist former armed forces chief of staff, Benny Gantz, without sufficient parliamentary support to establish a government.
In the most serious political reversal Netanyahu has faced yet, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Monday tasked Gantz with forming Israel’s next government, after Gantz assembled a greater number of parliamentary supporters than the prime minister in the last round of elections, two weeks ago.
On Wednesday, a majority of Gantz’s fragile alliance of 61 seats out of the 120-member Knesset barricaded themselves in the building—respecting health ministry recommendations on social distancing—as Edelstein refused to seat the house.
Historian Gershom Goremberg, the author of The Unmaking of Israel on the crisis of Israeli democracy, tweeted that “the only recorded death so far in Israel from this virus was the already aging, highly vulnerable democracy.”
The Israeli government has been widely lauded for its handling of the crisis, which included severe border restrictions and widespread quarantines from the start. Israel has suffered no fatalities, and for now has reported 347 diagnoses.
On Wednesday, Israel barred all foreign citizens from entering the country.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Goremberg was blunt: “The prime minister and the Knesset speaker are using the health crisis to evade the outcome of the election and remain in power despite the fact that a majority voted to remove them from power.”
“The caretaker prime minister is using the crisis to postpone his own trial,” said Goremberg. “These are pretty serious challenges to basic democratic order. It feels like the combination of a global health crisis, and the negative electoral results, from Netanyahu’s point of view, not to mention his upcoming trial, have pushed Netanyahu and his cronies to lose all inhibitions about undermining the democratic process.”
In a statement Wednesday night, Gantz announced that his Blue and White party would file a supreme court petition demanding the Knesset be convened. “However big the health and economic crisis, we cannot allow it to eat away at the foundations of our democracy,” he said.
Gantz accused Netanyahu and Edelstein, both members of the right-wing Likud party, of a naked power grab.
“The Likud doesn’t have a majority in the Knesset, so they want to shut it down.”
The Israeli Supreme Court will hear a challenge to the electronic tracking order this week, and is expected to expedite its hearing on the matter of the Knesset.
President Rivlin, also a Likud member, warned Edelstein that stopping regular parliamentary order was harming Israel’s ability to function during an emergency.
The coronavirus crisis, Rivlin said, should not be used “to critically damage our democratic infrastructure.”
“Blue and White want to commandeer the Knesset to undemocratic ends,” Netanyahu claimed in a statement.
Noting that Israel was traversing “a very difficult, unprecedented moment,” Mordechai Kremnitzer, a professor of law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an expert on constitutional law, cautioned against the use of the words “coup d’état” in Israel’s case.
He defined Netanyahu’s power grab instead as “an attempt to hold on to power, and remain in power, for as long as possible, with the ultimate aim of ridding himself of the trial.”
Netanyahu was not using violent means, Kremnitzer said in an interview.
“I don’t think that a group of people including Netanyahu and Edelstein gathered around and said, ‘Let’s take control of the Israeli government through illegal means.’ I don’t think there was a meeting.” So, in that sense not a conspiracy. “They are still trying to cover their actions with a mantle of legality,” said Kremnitzer. “They care that it all looks proper.”
At least, for now.