Reuven Rivlin, the Israeli president, a largely ceremonial post meant to be above politics, warned that “statesmanship has come to an end” and said Israel was “witnessing the winds of a second revolution or coup.” Mr. Rivlin comes from Mr. Netanyahu’s own party, Likud.
Mr. Rivlin’s speech last week, in particular, was widely considered an unprecedented political intervention.
“It touched on an exposed nerve of many Israelis,” said Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan research center in Jerusalem. “Israelis are committed to Israel remaining a strong and vibrant democracy. However, there is a deep divide on how we interpret what democracy means.”
That Mr. Rivlin comes from the same party as Mr. Netanyahu made his rebuke all the more surprising, and drew comparisons with criticism leveled against President Trump by leading Republicans in the United States, including Senators Bob Corker and John McCain and former President George W. Bush.
While some see other threats to Israeli democracy stemming from the military occupation of territories captured in the 1967 war, this latest debate is more internal, focusing on democracy within Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries and coming after mounting episodes of what critics called new levels of toxicity and partisanship in the national discourse.
There have been political moves to curb the influence of guardians of liberal values, including attacks on the news media, efforts to impose sanctions on human rights organizations deemed to act against Israel abroad, and attempts to advance legislation in Parliament to override decisions of the Supreme Court.
In recent months, politicians from Likud have maligned Shin Bet as cowardly and delusional, and branded former security chiefs critical of government policy as “leftists,” now almost a synonym for traitors in some right-wing circles.
Many Israelis were outraged when Mr. Netanyahu, who is under investigation in two graft cases, personally attacked the police in a Facebook post, accusing them of leaking details to the press. Continuing efforts by Likud politicians to introduce legislation that would prohibit corruption investigations of a sitting prime minister, apparently tailored for Mr. Netanyahu, have been lambasted as “absurd” and “inconceivable” by the attorney general and are causing a public uproar.
“We have good reason to be terrified by the ethical and moral rot that leads us,” the former Shin Bet chief, Yuval Diskin, wrote in Monday’s edition of the popular Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.
“If we permit corruption to take hold in the Knesset,” he wrote, “to damage the separation of powers in the country and, worst of all, to infiltrate the most sensitive process in a democratic country — which is the process by which our elected officials are investigated — this incredible Zionist enterprise will expire.”
Analysts say that the country is locked in a fundamental clash not between left and right but between the values of the founding generation of leaders who put the common good and the interests of the state first and a newer, more populist and partisan politics epitomized by Mr. Netanyahu’s government.
Mr. Rivlin, 78, and Mr. Netanyahu, 68, though only a decade apart, reflect these two Israels.
Mr. Rivlin champions the old-school nationalist but liberal democracy envisioned by the right-wing Zionist Revisionist movement of Zeev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin, who pushed for a greater Israel territorially but were sticklers for defending minority rights and the rule of law. Mr. Netanyahu is also a disciple of Mr. Jabotinsky and Mr. Begin, but analysts say he and many of his ministers reflect the brash political populism of the digital age.
Mr. Rivlin did not mention Mr. Netanyahu by name but accused those in power of working to delegitimize and weaken “the gatekeepers of Israel’s democracy,” and, crucially for a country that lacks a constitution, erode the justice system and the influence of the courts.
Mr. Rivlin, like other critics, accused the government of championing the will of the majority while weakening the institutions that protect the rights of the minority.
“We are today witnessing the winds of a second revolution or coup,” he said. The first one, which he said he also opposed, was a decision by the Supreme Court in the 1990s to overturn laws that contradicted Israel’s Basic Laws. “This time,” he said, “it is the rule of the majority that is the sole ruler.”
Declaring that “statesmanship has come to an end here,” he used the Hebrew term “mamlachtiyut,” a concept of putting the national interest first, coined by Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.
Netanyahu loyalists saw the attack as an inside job. Some Likud politicians said that Mr. Rivlin “is no longer one of us,” and others suggested abolishing the presidency.
Days later, at a swearing-in ceremony for the new president of the Supreme Court at Mr. Rivlin’s official residence, Mr. Netanyahu was philosophical. Citing Montesquieu and Kant, he said, “In all democracies there is a perpetual and often stormy argument about demarcating the boundaries between the branches of government. That isn’t a blow to democracy; that is the essence of democracy. It always exists.”
In a conciliatory tone, Mr. Netanyahu emphasized the importance of a strong and independent Supreme Court. Quoting Cicero’s description of the Jews of Rome 2,000 years ago as a “litigious people,” he added, “Nothing has changed. We argue, argue and argue again.” The point, he said, was to create an “effective” and “dignified” dialogue based on mutual respect.
Mr. Netanyahu, who has been elected four times, leads what many describe as the most nationalist and illiberal government in Israel’s history.
Debbie Gild-Hayo, a lawyer who tracks legislation for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, a human rights group, said anti-democratic legislation has snowballed in recent years.
“The democratic space is shrinking,” she said.
The government is dominated by right-wing and religious parties, while the opposition is divided and weak. That made Mr. Rivlin’s voice all the more significant.
“The left wing is attacking Netanyahu all day long but has no influence,” said Avi Shilon, an Israeli historian who teaches at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and N.Y.U. Tel Aviv. “You need somebody from the right wing, from the roots of Revisionism.”
Daniel Gordis, an author and senior vice president of Jerusalem’s Shalem College for the liberal arts, says he views much of what is happening in Israel “in the shadow of the Trump administration.” With all the differences in personality, Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Trump have resorted to similar tactics, such as decrying the mainstream news media as purveyors of “fake news.”
Mr. Rivlin probably felt he had an obligation to speak up, Mr. Gordis said, because Israel was “inching ominously toward a watershed moment.” But unlike the United States, he added, “Israel is a 70-year-old democracy, not 250 years old.”
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