An Interview with Yohanan Plesner

When you look at those parameters, they are what affects voting behavior far more than issues. Some of the issues that are most divisive have to do with those. The constitutional divide has to do with the role of the Supreme Court in ensuring equality, where some of the religious parties aspire towards the Jewish religious law regulating the domestic affairs of state and therefore are opposed to the constitutional role of the court.

This civic cultural identity divide is translated into a number of issues with respect to our democracy and religion and state. These are probably the deep-rooted issues that mostly affect voting behavior, and also are responsible for the fact that movement between political blocs in Israel is actually extremely limited

OR: How do you assess the long tenure of Binyamin Netanyahu? How do you understand him as a politician and leader of government? What is the source of his political longevity?

Plesner: Netanyahu is probably the most talented politician we’ve had in decades, with very, very strong willpower. He wants to be there. He wants to be a politician. The single most important factor that Netanyahu's political power is based on is his communication skills. He honed them back in the U.S. when he was there in the '80s in diplomatic roles representing the state of Israel. He was one of the first Israeli politicians that really mastered TV. Now he does an extremely good job in communicating with his base of supporters using social media and digital tools. So as long he manages to communicate effectively with his base of supporters and preserve his level of support within that group, it doesn't require that all Israelis him. Only about a quarter of Israelis voted for Mr. Netanyahu, but as long as this quarter is stable, he's able to convert that into political power.

The other strategic imperative that characterizes his tenure is the alliance with the ultra-Orthodox, beginning in '96 when he won the election by very effectively relying on the dual nature of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and always knowing how to emphasize the Jewish component for his benefit.

Netanyahu also has two main assets in the way he conducts himself. First of all, he learns from mistakes. His government was toppled in 1998 because he was deserted by the fringes of the right-wing base. His conclusion was: never give up on that base. This rule was violated in the recent coalition deal when he left the Yamina out, but otherwise he has been very strict on not letting go of the base. It means also therefore not sliding towards the center in his views, and always making sure that nobody flanks him from the right.

Another important element is that he knows how to correct the mistakes and has no problem apologizing and fixing his mistakes. As finance minister in 2002 and 2003 under Mr. Sharon, he was a very effective reformer. But his conclusion was that economic reforms cause you to pay a political price within your base, and ever since, as prime minister, he barely introduced any reforms and didn't confront any serious interest groups.

I think probably the final point is the fact that he lacks inhibitions. It's very much manifested now in the bloated government that he introduced to the Knesset in May, which seems based on the idea that no basic law, no constitutional issue, and no normative limitation is actually a barrier. As long as there's a political end and a political interest, then boundaries can be crossed. When you have very few inhibitions, it expands your set of political tools tremendously. Observe how he sliced like a salami our public sector in order to provide bits and pieces of government goodies to various Likud members in a way that completely negates any kind of public-policy or managerial logic.

OR: Do you think that the criticism of Netanyahu for undermining democratic governance in Israel is a fair one?

Plesner: Yes. Until 2015 in many ways Netanyahu was a block and a barrier to some of the initiatives intending to undermine the rule of law and the independent judiciary. A wave of populist, anti-democratic initiatives began to emerge about a decade ago as a result of other reasons that have nothing to do with Netanyahu, such as the rise of social media and the fact that people wanted to nurture their own echo chambers. There was also the growth in power and demographic growth of the ultra-Orthodox community, which has a different vision for Israel's democracy — a vision more based on religion and religious law than on civic law and civic code. The settler movement felt very strong in parliament in the political circle but felt that its hands were tied when it came to the judiciary that ensured that law is equally enforced in the territories. So there was a group of overlapping interests.

Netanyahu wasn't really a part of it. He wasn't vehemently against it, because he's a very skillful politician and he didn't want to pay a price within his base. But essentially, he had no problem with the fact that the vast, vast majority of anti-constitutional initiatives, or initiatives that were aimed at subverting the principles of separation of power and concentrating all power within the political majority, were thwarted and subverted. In many ways, he supported the subversion of these initiatives behind the scenes.

But after 2015 — and especially with the intensification of his own legal investigations and the fact that the narrative that he told himself was that he's now a victim of politically motivated persecution by law enforcement institutions — he began to not only stop blocking those anti-rule of law initiatives, but actually to give them additional oomph. This included some initiatives that were aimed at weakening the police, the independence of the judiciary, the independence of the attorney general. Once Netanyahu joined those other interest groups in targeting some of our institutions of rule of law, he actually became a much greater challenge to our young democracy.