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The suspension of Israeli ‘democracy’

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Israel is currently experiencing what many perceive to be a crackdown on core democratic institutions, under the pretext of a response to the coronavirus pandemic.

I write ‘perceive’ because I have a different view, but back to that later. First a few data points:

After Netanyahu’s centrist rival, Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Party, received a slight majority mandate backing of 61 he got a first shot at creating a government from the Israeli president. The backing of Gantz by the full 15-seat Joint List of largely-Palestinian legislators is not to be read as a measure of his actual intent to include them in government. Blue White have been pursuing the possibility of a wide national-unity government that would include Likud, though that seemed to fail so far, and they are keeping their cards close re the Joint List so they can have it both ways:

1) not to offend Palestinians by saying they don’t really mean it

2) to hold their majority cards so as to apply maximum leverage against Likud to somehow obtain such a unity government.

But the beans get spilled, like when Blue White leader Gabi Ashkenazi’s wife said to a right-wing protester outside her home that “Blue White don’t go with Arabs”.

The Blue and White plan was first to pass legislation limiting Netanyahu’s ability to become Prime Minister again (for the 5th term), by imposing term limits and restrictions against an indicted lawmaker serving as prime minister (Avigdor Liberman’s agenda). But the plan was foiled when Knesset speaker, Netanyahu loyalist Yuli Edelstein, managed on Wednesday to close the Knesset parliament, citing the threat of coronavirus (although such a step is perhaps just as novel as the virus itself, and not seen in countries hit far worse than Israel).

Edelstein’s lockdown meant that he as speaker could not be replaced by Blue White. So the move stopped the regular process of setting up committees and votes that could lead to the barring of Netanyahu.

Even before that, in the late night hours, Justice Minister Amir Ohana, also a Netanyahu loyalist, effectively closed the courts except for certain urgent cases – because of coronavirus, of course. Netanyahu’s corruption cases, which were set to have a first hearing this week, are not considered urgent, so the case is postponed by over two months for now.

In addition, Netanyahu has set in motion directives to enact surveillance on private citizens through their cellphones. “There is no choice”, he said. Coronavirus, of course.

Now, under normal circumstances, these steps would be seen as an obvious suspension of democratic principles, if one believed that the democracy was real. What is interesting here is that those enacting these authoritarian and invasive measures are not arguing that they are liberal– no, they are arguing that they are merely temporary – coronavirus, we all know.

This vein of suspending ‘normal’ protocol is what is generally known as a ‘state of emergency’. But ‘state of emergency’ is a principle that Israel has been applying ever since its inception, in varying degrees yet constantly, almost exclusively against Palestinians.

In 1948-1966, Israel ‘suspended’ what would otherwise be a state of democratic equality, putting Palestinian citizens under martial law.

A year after that status was relaxed (in November 1966), Israel came to control many more Palestinians under its 1967 occupation. The occupation, too, was presented as a temporary situation, which could justify temporary undemocratic measures. The occupation is now of course almost 53 years old. Israel has also been applying emergency regulations of 1945, from the British Mandate period, to enact ‘temporary’ measures of detention without trial (for renewable periods of 6 months) as well as punitive home demolitions and other draconian measures – all targeting Palestinians almost exclusively. Cellphone surveillance is very familiar to Palestinians.

Even those Palestinians who are living highest in Israel’s multi-tiered Apartheid system (2nd-class citizens, occupied, besieged, expelled), are living under a myriad of discriminatory laws. One of those laws, barring family reunifications between citizens and subjects in occupied territory, was passed as ‘temporary’ legislation in 2003, ostensibly to prevent terror. But in 2005 then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon admitted the real intent of the law, saying it was about preserving a Jewish state, and that there really is no need to “hide behind security arguments”. That law had to be renewed each year, which it was. Temporary, of course!

So today many Israelis are shocked by the suspension of democratic trappings and rights, concerned that it’s not really about a temporary tackling of an emergency, but rather a cynical ploy of Netanyahu and Likud to maintain power. They are probably right. A “putsch,” says Israel’s former chief archivist.

But in the bigger picture, this process is only emulating what has been the Palestinian experience under the “Jewish democracy” – which is a fake democracy for Jewish privilege.

Because this is the Zionist character, and it’s no wonder that the masks of “democracy” fall at certain critical pressure points, even when it’s Jews vs Jews.

Because first they came for the Palestinians – they always come first for the Palestinians. But Zionists were not Palestinians, so most did not speak up.

Jonathan Ofir

Israeli musician, conductor and blogger / writer based in Denmark.

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10 Responses

  1. annie on March 20, 2020, 4:39 pm

    essentially, with this move, netanyahu is nullify the results of the election. everything becomes suspended and frozen in place.

    “Edelstein’s lockdown meant that he as speaker could not be replaced by Blue White.”


  2. andrew r on March 20, 2020, 4:48 pm

    I wonder if this’ll result in a hard Netanyahu dictatorship. He’s not going to have the virus as an excuse forever. And what’s the chance of a mutiny in the IDF if the opposing Zionist parties can’t exercise their mandate?

  3. Marnie on March 21, 2020, 7:11 am

    Coronavirus is the gift that keeps on giving to racist xenophobics, not just Zionist ones either. netanyahoo has really but the Demon in democracy with these moves, only to protect himself, of course. Wonder if #ImpeachedForLife will try the same thing and shut down the November elections? Now that Bernie has been screwed again and doesn’t seem to have the heart to fight this con, again(!), would it even matter? Biden = Trump.

  4. Misterioso on March 21, 2020, 9:56 am

    “Institutional Racism Lies at the Heart of Israel’s Internal Political Struggles”

    “Israeli leaders have found themselves in an uncomfortable quandary: work with Arab
    law makers or let the year long political chaos continue.”
    By Miko Peled, MPM News, March 20, 2020

    • wondering jew on March 24, 2020, 2:07 am

      Removing Bibi from office is a project that Blue White and the Joint List can share, but beyond racism there is a question, what kind of foreign policy would this “coalition” assert? The leadership of Blue White feels that the Trump Plan is great, if only the world would agree. The Joint List is opposed with every fiber of its being to the Trump Plan. The gap between Blue White and Joint List on such a major world view question is enough to make the idea of such a coalition an absurdity. (Yes, racism is a problem in Israel and its expressions can be seen many places. But beyond that, isn’t a policy towards the West Bank something that a coalition must agree upon before you can call it a coalition? Yes, decidedly yes. There’s a reason why Blue-white can be called Likud without Bibi, because its policy is barely degrees less annexationist than Bibi. And thus far to the right of the Joint List. Far to the right.)

  5. CHUCKMAN on March 22, 2020, 6:04 am

    “The suspension of Israeli ‘democracy’”

    What democracy?

    Was Nationalist South Africa a democracy?

    Was the American Confederacy a democracy?

    Those literally are the historical parallels for the Israeli concept of democracy.

  6. andrew r on March 22, 2020, 4:10 pm

    You could argue the US itself wasn’t a true democracy until the Voting Rights Act since Jim Crow was mostly successful at de-facto disenfranchising African-Americans.

    • CHUCKMAN on March 23, 2020, 4:49 am

      Indeed, but it still is not.

      it truly has become a plutocracy.

      “The best Congress money can buy”

      Supreme Court decision: “Money is free speech.”

      Hillary Clinton burned through 1.2 billion dollars just for one losing campaign.

      Bloomberg spent 900 million dollars for his brief effort at the Democrats’ nomination.

      And American policies and decisions abroad are sold like commodities for huge campaign contributions, and are not made in the country’s own long-term interests.

    • bcg on March 23, 2020, 11:36 am

      “One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy ” by Carol Anderson. Amazon blurb:

      Focusing on the aftermath of Shelby, Anderson follows the astonishing story of government-dictated racial discrimination unfolding before our very eyes as more and more states adopt voter suppression laws. In gripping, enlightening detail she explains how voter suppression works, from photo ID requirements to gerrymandering to poll closures. In a powerful new afterword, she examines the repercussions of the 2018 midterm elections. And with vivid characters, she explores the resistance: the organizing, activism, and court battles to restore the basic right to vote to all Americans.

  7. Nathan on March 24, 2020, 6:41 pm

    Jonathan Ofir – It’s true that a possible Gantz government would get the support of the 15 members of Knesset from the Joint List, but the Joint List wouldn’t be part of the governing coalition. However, as in an earlier article of yours, you don’t mention that the Joint List does NOT intend to be part of the governing coalition. So, although you present a true piece of information (i.e. Gantz does not intend to include the Joint List in his theoretical minority government), you nevertheless are being manipulative (again) by not mentioning that the MK’s of the Joint List do not wish to be in the government. Obviously, the refusal of the mostly Arab party to participate in Israel’s government ruins the intensity of your grievences, and this is the reason that you won’t mention it. It would be silly to gripe over the fact that the Joint List isn’t being invited to join a coalition when the Joint List declares that it won’t participate (no matter what). But it would be an act of honesty to tell the readers the entire story. Apparently, you feel that honesty and anti-Israel propaganda are mutually contradictory.

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