A series of legal and political moves by Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightwing government to stifle criticism of its policies have prompted warnings that Israel is rapidly heading towards a system of authoritarian rule. In recent weeks, the Israeli government has put forward measures to muzzle the media, shut down human rights groups, and seize control of appointments to the supreme court to fill it with rightwing judges.

Ehud Olmert, who handed over the Israeli premiership to Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday after three years heading the government, suffered a slow and public political demise. The eight lame-duck months since his resignation have been spent energetically refashioning his image as a successful leader — the “Olmert myth”, as one commentator recently called it. Humiliated in a war in Lebanon and buffeted by corruption scandals at home, Mr Olmert is reported to believe he will one day make a political comeback like Mr Netanyahu, who led the government in the late 1990s.

Israelis may have noted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s unusually dejected demeanour when he gave a televised address to the nation last week on the eve of Israel’s 60th Independence Day celebrations. Most, however, had no way of knowing why Olmert was so downcast. An Israeli judge had slapped a sweeping order to prevent the Israeli media from repeating reports published in American newspapers that Olmert was becoming rapidly ensnared in a corruption scandal.