Columnist Thomas Friedman

Thomas Friedman writes a column for the New York Times.

On Sept. 17, Israel will hold its second national election in less than six months.

From afar, 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 is not a rerun. 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, probably 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.

Mendelblit wrote of Netanyahu: “You have hurt the image of public service and public faith in it. You acted in a conflict of interests, you abused your authority while taking into account other considerations that relate to your personal interests and the interests of your family. You corrupted public servants working under you.”

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. Heaven forbid — that would be wrong!

And guess what? 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.

Alas, besides his Likud party, the only parties extreme enough to go along with Bibi’s abuses were the far-right settlers and ultra-Orthodox. Because Bibi was obsessed with enlisting them to gain a ruling majority in the Knesset, they made him their captive, steadily escalating their demands, eventually to a point where other members of his proposed coalition refused to play along.

But in the process of all that maneuvering, every Israeli got to see just how far Bibi was ready to go to compromise Israel’s legal institutions purely to save himself.

Netanyahu was asking his future coalition partners to pass laws that would give him, a sitting prime minister, 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. I am not making this up, folks. We’re talking Jewish 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, repeatedly highlighting that not only will the creeping annexation of the West Bank eventually undermine Israel as a Jewish democracy — which is built on the principle of one person, one vote — but that it literally requires Bibi and his far-right partners to undermine Israel’s legal institutions. Because it’s the Supreme Court, vibrant civil society groups and news media that 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.

Many outside of Israel think that the only two scenarios for the West Bank are separation of Israelis and Palestinians or integration of Israelis and Palestinians in a single political entity based on equal rights. But the Israeli right has a third fantasy in mind: controlling the West Bank without giving equal rights to Palestinians who live there.

The main barrier to this vision is Israel’s world-class judicial system, free press and civil society. So the right wing has to emasculate them. Barak spotlighted that connection for all Israelis.

Barak cannot win this election. But by jumping into the race and 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.

Barak named his new party Yisrael Demokratit — Democratic Israel — arguing: “Each of us has a choice between the State of Israel and the State of Netanyahu; between the shattering of Israeli democracy, intentional damage to the rule of law, the courts and the police; between the utter trampling of the Israeli government and solidarity — and the Jewish, democratic state that Israel needs, that is right and sustainable. … These are the darkest days we have known.”

President Donald Trump and Jews all over the world should pray that Bibi loses. If he wins the election — and undermines the rule of law to protect his rule and to perpetuate Israel’s control of the West Bank — every Jew who cares about the Jewish state will eventually have to make an ethical choice about whether or not they can continue to support Israel.

This, as I said, could tear apart every synagogue and Jewish institution on college campuses, in America and across the diaspora.

And because Netanyahu has so completely snookered both Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, they don’t understand that if Bibi wins, the Trump peace plan is dead on arrival.

Bibi can only survive politically now with a coalition that would reject any hint of power sharing with Palestinians, no matter how feeble.

Ironically, only if Barak’s agenda shapes this election and produces a coalition government ready to address Israel’s most existential issue might Trump’s peace plan get a hearing and catalyze change.

By the way, my fellow Americans, do many elements of this story have a familiar ring to you?