Thomas Friedman: Who is a bigger threat to his democracy, Bibi or Trump?

Thomas Friedman. (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin)
Thomas Friedman. (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin)STEPHEN CHERNIN

On Sept. 17, Israel will hold its second national election in less than six months. It looks like just a rerun of the election on April 9, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu narrowly won — but was unable to put together a ruling coalition afterward. Do not be fooled. This will be one of the most important elections in Israel's history. If you care about Israel, pay attention, because the country you admire is on the line. If you're a Jew, really pay attention, because the outcome of this election could tear apart your synagogue and your community.

Why? Because this Israeli election brings together several related issues that cut to the heart of Israel's identity as a Jewish democracy — issues that were suppressed in the April election but that have now exploded into public view.

Those issues are the future of Israel's judicial institutions, the future of Israel's control over 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and whether Israel will be led at this crucial time by a pragmatic coalition from the center or by the farthest-right coalition the country has ever seen. Also at stake are the fates of Israel's two current political titans: Netanyahu — who is waging a no-holds-barred fight to avoid being jailed for corruption — and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who sat out the previous election but has jumped into this one. Barak argues that we're on the brink of "a complete breakdown of Israeli democracy," which is "a strategic threat no less serious than the Iranian threat."

Let me try to unravel it all. In April's election, there was tacit collusion between the right and the center-left in Israel not to discuss the Palestinian issue. Netanyahu's Likud party and its right-wing allies did not want to discuss their creeping annexation of the West Bank. And Bibi's main center-left rivals, the Blue and White party, led by retired Gen. Benny Gantz, and the Labor Party, thought that focusing on Netanyahu's personal corruption would draw more votes than offering a plan to separate Israel from the Palestinians. As a consequence, the issue most vital to Israel's future was swept under the rug.

So the main divide in the April election was the center-left saying Bibi had to go because he and his family were corrupt and had been in power too long and Netanyahu claiming that he was indispensable to Israel's future.

The corruption charges against Bibi are no ordinary charges. In February, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit — whom Bibi appointed — announced his intent to indict Netanyahu in three corruption cases, pending a pre-indictment hearing at which Bibi can make one last appeal.

Bibi is desperate. He could go to jail. But before the April election, he vigorously denied that if he won and his coalition took control of the Knesset, they would use their power to pass laws that would shield him from indictment and prosecution. Immediately after he won, his first action was to try to ensure that the new coalition he was forming would pass the very laws he denied he would pursue to nullify an indictment against him.

Netanyahu was asking his future coalition partners to pass laws that would give him effective immunity from prosecution. And to prevent Israel's Supreme Court from striking down these laws, Bibi insisted his partners also pass another law that would curtail the powers of the Supreme Court. We're talking banana republic stuff.

But the Palestinian issue was still not on the agenda. Enter Ehud Barak.

For the past few years, the retired-but-still-influential Barak has been hammering Netanyahu on Twitter, highlighting that not only will the creeping annexation of the West Bank eventually undermine Israel as a Jewish democracy but that it requires Bibi and his far-right partners to undermine Israel's legal institutions. The Supreme Court, vibrant civil society groups and news media are the last institutions standing in the way of the far right's effort to take over Palestinian territories while ensuring the Palestinians there would never have the same political rights as Israelis.

Barak cannot win this election. But by highlighting all these threats to Israel's future, he can force them onto the agenda and force the Blue and White and Labor parties to discuss what he has called a "slippery slope" to an "apartheid" future for the West Bank.

President Donald Trump and Jews all over the world should pray that Bibi loses. If he wins the election every Jew who cares about the Jewish state will eventually have to make an ethical choice about whether they can continue to support Israel. Because Netanyahu has so completely snookered Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, they don't understand that if Bibi wins, the Trump peace plan is dead. Bibi can only survive politically with a coalition that would reject any hint of power sharing with Palestinians. Ironically, only if Barak's agenda produces a coalition government ready to address Israel's most existential issue might Trump's peace plan get a hearing and catalyze change.

My fellow Americans, do many elements of this story have a familiar ring to you?