Earlier this month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that, after a month of trying, he had failed to form a governing coalition. Despite his almost preternatural political skills, a strong economy, and relative stability for Israel in a region wracked by chaos and violence, the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history could not produce the majority necessary to create a government.
Now his challenger, Benny Gantz, will have his chance at this task. Much hangs in the balance. It’s the first time in over a decade that an Israeli politician other than Netanyahu has had such an opportunity.
While it is far from clear that Gantz will be successful – the odds aren’t great, and Israelis may well find themselves returning to the polls for an unprecedented third election in a year – one thing is increasingly clear: something is changing in Israel.
What is equally clear from this process is that the people of Israel have had enough of the prime minister’s corruption, his divisive rhetoric, and increasingly autocratic tendencies.
While Gantz has stated his intention to try to form a so-called “national unity government” with the Likud Party, he has also staked his campaign on dedication to the rule of law, commitment to good governance, and the values of democracy.
But in the face of mounting pressure from criminal investigations – the Prime Minister is under threat of indictment on three counts of bribery, fraud, and the breach of public trust – the Likud and its ministers are lashing out at the Supreme Court and the legitimacy of the judiciary. Netanyahu’s interim Justice Minister Amir Ohana, the man charged with running Israel’s judicial system, has questioned the integrity of the Israeli legal system. The Chief Justice of Israel’s Supreme Court Esther Hayut responded by saying, “Never in Israel’s history have we lived through days like these…politicizing the judiciary can subvert its very foundations.”
The assaults on democracy and the rule of law continue even now. And it is too soon to say whether the democracy recession that Netanyahu has overseen over the past decade will end with his departure.
But even so, something is changing for the better in Israel.
If Israel’s Jewish electorate said anything clearly, it was a clear “no” to Jewish extremists who incite against Arab citizens. And Israel’s Arabs citizens turned out in large numbers to vote for the Joint List, a party that the first time in a quarter century has reached out to Jewish parties to build political partnership.
Just the other day, at this year’s J Street Conference in Washington, DC, the leader of the Joint List, the union of Israel’s majority-Arab parties, party leader Ayman Odeh implored Mr. Gantz to rise to the moment. Quoting “the great American poet,” Lin Manuel Miranda’s lines from Hamilton, he said “History has its eyes on us.”
Odeh urged Gantz to follow the example set by the late leaders Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestinian-Israeli politician and poet Tawfik Zaid, who lent his support to Rabin’s government in exchange for a commitment to equality and peace. “Be brave like Rabin was, and it will be my honor to be brave like Tawfiq Ziad.”
Just as the rise of “illiberal democracy” in Israel was a warning sign of the global assault on liberal democracy, this opening for hope in Israel may also be part of a pattern of liberal-democratic pushback. Increasing numbers of voters and responsible politicians in Israel, the United States, and beyond are saying no to corruption, xenophobia, and the politics of “us versus them.”
What is needed now is momentum.
To be clear: right-wing populism is by no means in full retreat. It remains a formidable foe to liberal democracy. But we can hope – and we can surely work to ensure – that the turning of tide begins now.
We know that the defense of democracy can’t only take place in the halls of government, or in the opinion pages of newspapers. We all share in that responsibility.
It’s clear to me that civil society has a critical role to play right now. Civil society in Israel remains essential in defending the right to peaceful public protest, which has helped bring down governments, end wars, change laws, and move public opinion towards justice. It’s essential in standing up for the rights of the few against the tyranny of the majority, and in laying the paving stones on the long road toward change.
The tide is beginning to turn, but whether it continues – that will be up to us.