For two years, Israel lacked basic workings of government. Checks and balances were tossed out of the window, power was concentrated in the Prime Minister's Office, and mandatory demands for governance, like a state budget, were postponed.
The result was an unprecedented period of chaos and lack of accountability. The country was left yearning for the appointment of foreign diplomats, and one of its worst civilian disasters was not investigated. This eroded confidence abroad, harmed relations with key countries and left questions about how Israel slouched into a war in May with Hamas and what other important decisions were taken for short-term political gain.
Israel finally emerged from the shadow of this seemingly endless instability in June with a new government and a promise of more transparency and renewed authority.
But the long-term effects of the chaos under former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu may linger for years to come. That Netanyahu, whose supporters often portray him as an all-knowing, brilliant leader of historic proportions, could jettison basic responsibilities and accountability leaves many questions about today's Israel.
The Palestinian Vaccine Fiasco
The recent confusion about vaccines Israel offered to the Palestinian Authority is an example. According to reports, Israel was going to transfer around 100,000 vaccines that would expire in weeks to Ramallah and over a million more that would expire in July. But Ramallah rejected them.
Critics slammed the PA for its refusal to make swift use of the vaccines, charging that it should at least try to jab the 60,000 people a day it claims it has the ability to process.
There is some typical arrogance built into this equation. Were Israel on the receiving end of a batch of soon-to-expire vaccines being dumped on it, cogent questions would be raised whether they should be accepted. The vaccination program requires two doses. A chaotic rollout of soon-to-expire vaccines is not ideal.
So why did Israel wait until June to offer a million vaccines it had sitting in storage? If they weren't needed in June, it stands to reason they weren't needed in May or in April. But back then, Netanyahu's officials were still biding their time and concerned about not forming a government. Like other things, such as the second flag march last week, the vaccination deal was pushed aside.
The deal with Ramallah appears cynical, with Israel set to receive doses from Pfizer in September and October in lieu of the ones it wanted to now dump on Ramallah. For the Netanyahu system of governance, everything appears to have come down to short-term solutions and cynical choices.
Netanyahu (Not) in Abu Dhabi
Another example of short-term quick-fix governance that has underpinned Netanyahu's system was the embarrassing series of plans and cancellations for Netanyahu to go to Abu Dhabi. First planned and canceled in late 2020 and early January 2021 after the Abraham Accords, another trip was canceled on February 4 because Netanyahu's government had closed Ben-Gurion Airport due to a lockdown.
Then on March 11, yet another trip was canceled at the last minute because Jordan didn't want the Israeli prime minister transiting through its territory. The bizarre trip had necessitated a plane change in Amman and a two-hour wait on the tarmac in Abu Dhabi. It was to take place just before the election, and UAE officials were shocked that their country was being used as a political prop.
The trips to the UAE were organized as no more than an afterthought, without basic planning – not like a visit by an important head of state in the wake of a historic peace agreement. When the UAE or other monarchies in the Gulf host other leaders, or when their leaders go abroad, there are red carpets and honor guards and all the trappings one would expect for a state visit.
But for Israel's leadership, the Abraham Accords were simply an election prop in spite of the lip service that was paid to their importance. A two-hour visit and a handshake on the tarmac, followed by a swift return home for the elections, was the plan.
According to reports in March, the Israeli prime minister also made it impossible for foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi to go to the Gulf, lest he somehow shine in the spotlight. Now, Yair Lapid, Israel's new foreign minister, is expected to go and do what foreign ministers do.
Ad Hoc Diplomacy
Over the last decade, Netanyahu preferred secretive diplomacy and personal diplomacy by those linked directly to him over public, protocol diplomacy. It was chaotic, intended often to elicit short-term political gain. The question about why certain people were sent on certain trips became shrouded in political machinations and resulted in stories about now-former Mossad head Yossi Cohen being touted as a possible future successor to Netanyahu.
On Sunday, the new government named 36 diplomats to new postings after Netanyahu's administration held up those appointments. Why were vital diplomatic positions left unfilled? This almost certainly harmed Israel's ability to respond with meaningful rhetoric to last month's war with Hamas and badly eroded the Jewish state's global standing.
Netanyahu has long sought to emasculate the Foreign Ministry by sidelining professional diplomats and appointing politicians for personal diplomacy instead. The whole ship of state was mortgaged so one person could be its foreign minister, its defense minister and hold other leadership roles. At one point, Netanyahu was in charge of five ministries.
Chaos at ministries continued through May 2021. Some were either held by Netanyahu or juggled like fruit for others. In early May 2021, the communications ministerial appointment was finally made, along with a science and technology minister, social equality minister and ministers of higher education and water resources.
Reports appearing in foreign media mocked Netanyahu for holding five ministerial positions, wondering why he had also not created a "minister of magic." The real joke appeared to be on the citizens of Israel, who had been deprived of a basic functioning government for years. A foreign minister or a defense minister is a basic aspect of government, but having one man do everything is not.
In fact, when it comes to governance, Israel's authoritarian turn under Netanyahu sometimes appeared to exceed even the way things are done in places like Turkey and Russia; at least there, they tend to have ministers, even if the minister is serving at the pleasure of the leader.
The need for properly functioning ministries and a large diplomatic corps is vital for a country like Israel that is constantly under scrutiny and criticism. But for years, the ability to respond through those channels was weakened.
While Iran, Turkey and other adversaries have large diplomatic corps who can hold major meetings abroad to lobby and enlist support for their cause, Israel increasingly became a one-person foreign diplomatic operation. The results were embarrassment, confusion and short-term fixes for everything.
Also not surprisingly, crucial issues that are watched closely from abroad – whether the legal dispute in Sheikh Jarrah, Bedouin land struggles, Gaza, relations with Jordan, the Western Wall or other deals – were left to fester.
The festering, open wound of Mount Meron is one such example. On April 30, inadequate crowd control led to a huge crush, and 45 people were killed in one of Israel's worst tragedies. But the Netanyahu administration's approach showed a complete lack of urgency in launching an inquiry. It appears that Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties forbade any investigation, and in heeding their edicts, the government did nothing. This most painful event was to be swept under the carpet.
Even most authoritarian regimes investigate disasters when many people die. But in Israel, there was to be no investigation. Forty-five dead, and nobody need be made accountable because blame and following the money might reveal unfathomable corruption in some religious quarters and how corners were cut.
An investigation would reveal what everyone knew had happened during the pandemic, where whole swaths of the country were seemingly exempt from obeying regulations, as happened when schools were kept open for certain communities while most others were shut tight.
Israel during over a decade of Netanyahu rule cemented the state-within-a-state doctrine, where pandering to Haredi parties – and no questions asked in exchange for their support – was the way to go. That is also why it took many years to extradite one woman to Australia and why there was a push for immunity laws in the Knesset to protect politicians from indictment.
Then in February, there was the mystery oil spill when many beaches were polluted in what was said to be one of Israel's worst environmental disasters. Weeks later, it was gone from the news. No investigation. No information. A random event. It just happened, and nothing would be learned from it to try to avoid a recurrence.
The systematic erosion of accountability in Israel, the lack of a budget, personal diplomacy replacing a diplomatic corps, politicized diplomacy, religious blackmail of government institutions and investigations, the concentration of power, erosion of trust, short-term fixes for everything – and managing various conflicts but never seeking an end to them – became endemic to Israel's government.
Ending the impunity and consequences will take time.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.