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Why I Worry About Israeli Democracy
The challenges facing the country are daunting, but all is not lost.
After just eighteen months in opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu is back. In December, he managed to secure a majority coalition in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, allowing him to become prime minister for a record sixth time.
Netanyahu now leads the most religious, far-right government in Israel's history; alongside his own Likud party—which Netanyahu has effectively stuffed with sycophantic loyalists—the new coalition is composed of two ultra-Orthodox parties and three nationalist-religious populist parties. The head of one of the parties once described himself as a “proud homophobe”; another has a conviction for racial incitement against Arabs; and last week Netanyahu was forced to fire a third after the Supreme Court ruled that a plea deal on tax evasion charges and prior criminal convictions for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust made him ineligible to be a cabinet minister.
Having won on promises to “restore governance” and end the political instability that saw Israel go through five rounds of national elections since April 2019, the new government has already brought the country to the brink: Israel's mild-mannered president, Isaac Herzog, recently described the situation as an “historic constitutional crisis” and “a profound disagreement that is tearing our nation apart.” Political battle lines have been drawn across a range of issues—from Israel's educational system to its public broadcasting service and the extent of political intervention in normally-apolitical police and military affairs.
Nothing, however, has been more contentious than a plan to “reform” the judicial system. A bill proposed by Minister of Justice Yariv Levin, a prominent Netanyahu ally, would effectively do away with the separation of powers by allowing a bare majority in the Knesset to override court decisions, limiting judicial review of legislation, and ensuring that future judicial appointments are dominated by the government. These changes, together with other proposals like restructuring the Attorney General’s office, could also help insulate Netanyahu from the criminal charges he is facing of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. To a range of prominent Israelis from across the political spectrum, these proposals pose a clear and present danger to Israeli democracy.
These recent developments are concerning, but they are also a manifestation of deeper and more structural problems facing Israeli democracy. To fully appreciate these problems and the dangers they pose, it is necessary to have some historical context.
As it enters its 75th year of modern sovereign existence, Israel can look back at a rather remarkable history of democratic success. Since the nation was formed in May 1948—a time when there were fewer than two dozen democracies in the world—Israel has continuously maintained a proportional representation parliamentary system with universal adult suffrage, an unbroken chain of free and competitive elections, a fiercely independent judiciary, a pluralistic media environment, and a vibrant civil society.
Through the searing crucible of the last seven and a half decades (six major wars, incessant terrorist threats, the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a period of hyperinflation and near economic collapse, Covid lockdowns, and most recently, five national elections since 2019), democracy held. Israel's powerful military and state security agencies remained consistently subservient to elected civilian authorities accountable to the people. Similarly, when it came to the rule of law, a host of high-ranking Israeli politicians—including former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and former President Moshe Katzav—found out that no one was above it when they were convicted of crimes related to corruption and sexual assault, respectively.
This democratic durability is especially striking for three main reasons:
First, the country’s geographical location. Living in a region of stable, peaceful, prosperous democracies is not an absolute guarantee of democratic health, but it does help. Yet Israel emerged and survived in an environment which, as Israeli historian, Alexander Yakobson, aptly put it, is “as favorable to liberal democracy as the Dead Sea is to fishing.”
Second, the country’s demography. Neither Israel's founding elites nor the bulk of its population come from societies with solid democratic values or institutions. On the contrary, as former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren observed: “When Zionism emerged at the end of the 19th century, the Jews of Palestine and the thousands who joined them from tsarist Russia and around the Middle East had no exposure to democracy.” In the decades following its independence, Israel absorbed some two million immigrants, mainly from the Middle East, North Africa, and the former Soviet bloc, who similarly lacked exposure to democratic practice in their lands of origin. These immigrants—and subsequent arrivals from Ethiopia—were made citizens and integrated into a democracy whose Declaration of Independence guaranteed “freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture…complete equality of social and political rights…regardless of religion, race, or sex.”
Lastly, the durability of Israeli democracy is remarkable because of the country’s lack of a formal constitution. Israel has made do with a mixture of informal norms and Basic Laws (legislation passed piecemeal by the Knesset to establish the separation of powers, make the military subservient to elected authority, and guide the work of the executive, legislature, and courts). Eschewing the “winner takes all politics” of presidential and first-past-the-post political systems, Israel has relied upon a radical version of proportional representation in which teams of rivals representing wildly disparate ideologies and sectoral interests form a succession of messy coalition governments.
Despite these enormous challenges, Israel thrived. Today, it is a high-income country with a per capita GDP higher than that of France, Japan, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. Its macroeconomic conditions—in terms of growth, inflation, employment, and public debt—are enviable. And in the 2022 World Happiness Report—a compound index of GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom, and levels of corruption—Israel ranks as the 9th happiest country in the world.
So why am I now deeply worried about the future of Israeli democracy?
The answer is only partly to do with the ill winds that are currently corroding even formerly consolidated liberal democracies around the world. As with the United States, Brazil, and India, the causes of democratic backsliding in Israel are complex, and no one fully understands them yet. We can, however, point to several potent trends that threaten to unravel Israeli democracy.
The first has to do with the state itself. From the outside, Israel appears to be a strong and effective state. The 2022 US & News Report, for example, ranks it as the 10th most powerful state in the world, with Israel's military placed 4th, preceded only by the United States, China, and Russia. Israel's Covid response has also been lauded internationally as among the most effective in the world, suggesting high state capacity.
But this is increasingly a façade. Over the last few decades, Israel has allowed three shadow-states to gradually emerge under its nose: an ultra-Orthodox (or haredi) Jewish one, Bedouin-Arab areas of lawlessness and violence in the country’s rural regions, and a nationalist West Bank settler movement operating in a twilight-zone of ambiguous Israeli authority over the Palestinians. In each case, what began as fringe communities have metastasized into full-blown areas of limited statehood. Even if Israel manages to resolve the settlements issue, unless it can integrate its growing haredi and Bedouin populations into broadly liberal modernity, Israel will become increasingly balkanized and unstable.
Achieving such a mammoth task of socio-economic integration over the coming decades appears to be increasingly precarious. This is partly due to the second reason I am concerned about the health of Israeli democracy: the disintegration of a viable political center marked by the precipitous decline in the electoral power of the Israeli center-left, Benjamin Netanyahu's transformation of Israel’s dominant center-right party to a cult of personality, and the parallel rise of religious populist parties on Israel's far-right.
Last but not least, there is the hellish democratic conundrum of Israel's continued occupation and security control over more than two million Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Captured by Israel from Jordan in a defensive war in 1967, military occupation over these territories was supposed to be temporary, maintained until a peace settlement with either Jordan or an independent Palestinian state would separate the two peoples into two sovereign polities. Despite a growing circle of peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, however, Jordan officially renounced its claims to the West Bank in 1988, and peace with the Palestinians has proven elusive ever since. International law prohibits an occupying power from extending voting rights to an occupied population. But how long can a temporary occupation last? At what point does the temporary occupation become de facto annexation and the fact that Israelis and Palestinians living in the West Bank are subject to different rules become democratically untenable?
The inability to disengage from the Palestinians places Israeli democracy in an incrementally-tightening temporal vise. Continued control over a Palestinian population devoid of full political rights will exacerbate already delicate relations between Arabs and Jews within Israel itself, complicate efforts to expand the Abraham Accords between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and be a source of growing discomfort for the Western allies on which Israel depends for its economic, diplomatic, and military security.
A daunting list of challenges indeed. Yet all is not lost. Over the past few weeks hundreds of thousands of Israeli protesters have taken to the streets vowing to stop Netanyahu's plan to overhaul the judicial system. Chief Justice Esther Hayut declared in a speech that Netanyahu’s plans for “judicial reform” amounted to a plan to crush Israel’s legal system. Hundreds of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, bankers, and academics have publicly warned Netanyahu that undermining democracy will deal a fatal blow to Israel's economy, international legitimacy, and key alliances. Israeli civil society is pushing back.
Moreover, there are political considerations that could make Netanyahu backpedal or lead to a more liberal coalition government. For instance, a major security emergency may force Netanyahu to ditch his far-right coalition partners in favor of a centrist national unity government. Similarly, should Netanyahu himself exit the political scene, Israel’s political skies may well brighten considerably. This is because several political parties that are currently in the opposition are open to sitting in a future Likud-led government without Netanyahu. Were he to leave politics, a large center-right/center-left Israeli government may well emerge that is solidly committed to the core institutions and values of democracy.
At the structural level, the current crisis could spur Israel to deeper systemic reforms. A grand package deal could come together in which constitutional reform strengthens the supervisory powers of the Knesset and judiciary, while answering executive demands for better governance and socio-economic integration of haredi and Arab communities. This would require massive investment in infrastructure and the public sector, but Israel has undertaken such herculean projects of self-invention in the past and still has the financial resources to do so.
Given the turmoil that’s engulfed Israel in recent weeks, such political reforms may seem unlikely in the short run. But in Israel, as the country’s founding Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, famously put it, “in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.”
Amichai Magen is the director of the Program on Democratic Resilience & Development at Reichman University's Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy, and Strategy, where he also heads the MA Program in Diplomacy & Conflict Studies.
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