The re-election of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been described by some of his critics as a blow to democracy, or as evidence of Israel’s progression towards becoming an ‘illiberal democracy’.
However, several democracy watchdogs disagree with this assessment, as do some constitutional law experts and political analysts in Israel—and some of them are on the left.
In fact, according to a variety of benchmarks, Israel’s democratic system remains among the world’s most stable and healthiest. Its quality has actually improved in certain aspects in recent years.
Israel’s election, as always, was direct and free, and the result unambiguous. While the outcome was never assured, in hindsight there’s no shortage of reasons why Israeli voters chose Netanyahu over his challenger, political newcomer and leader of the Blue and White party Benny Gantz, regardless of whether they agreed with Netanyahu’s worldview or approved of him personally.
Political analyst Anshel Pfeffer, of Israel’s left-leaning paper Haaretz, wrote after the election, ‘[Netanyahu] has delivered a decade of uninterrupted economic growth. His last term has seen four of the calmest years in Israel’s history, and he is now on close terms with the most powerful leaders in the world’, adding, ‘The biggest surprise of this election for me was that Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t win by a landslide.’
Although a recent biographer of Netanyahu, Pfeffer is no fan. ‘I’m one of the 47 percent who voted against Netanyahu, and I’m pretty depressed he won’, he wrote. ‘But I can’t for the life of me see how the result is the death of Israeli democracy, as some are now writing in op-ed columns and on social media …[T]his election … was probably one of the most democratic we’ve had.’
Much of the angst over the risk to Israel’s democratic institutions has focused on clashes between members of Netanyahu’s governing coalition and the Supreme Court of Israel, which has occasionally made rulings they dislike.
Yet voters turned their backs on Naftali Bennett’s New Right party, which had built its campaign around returning Ayelet Shaked as justice minister and continuing her crusade against what she saw as the high court’s judicial activism against popular interests. New Right failed to cross the electoral threshold.
And Netanyahu’s incoming government will likely be more moderate than the previous one. Parties to the right of Netanyahu’s Likud party have gone from 14 seats in the previous Knesset to 10.
Meanwhile, the robust state of Israel’s democracy and freedoms holds up to scrutiny and compares well with other democracies in the eyes of impartial and respected watchdog groups.
For the past two years, Israel has placed 30th in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. Its ranking in 2018 placed it ahead of Belgium and just behind France.
In 2017, the Israel Democracy Institute’s annual survey found that ‘the international indicators suggest that, on the whole, Israel has been a stable democracy over the past decade’. Last year’s report, the most recent, only continued the trend.
Some of Israel’s respected academics have also assessed the condition of the nation’s democracy as robustly healthy.
In December 2018, Pnina Sharvit Baruch, an expert in international law and senior research fellow and head of the program on law and national security at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies published a paper on the topic ‘Is Israeli democracy at risk?’
In her paper, Shavit Baruch narrowed her focus to four spheres in which Israeli democracy is tested: protection of human rights, control over the West Bank, critics of the government and civilian activists, and checks and balances and the status of gatekeepers.
‘At the bottom line’, she concluded, ‘it appears that Israeli democracy remains strong and rests on solid foundations’.
While Shavit Baruch cautioned against ‘complacency’ and added that ‘steps aimed at eroding democratic values should be countered’, she lashed out at those who would overstate the threat to Israeli democracy. ‘The tendency on the part of some critics to portray any view contrary to their political position as undemocratic is dangerous in itself’, she wrote, ‘because “crying ‘wolf’” makes it difficult to distinguish between legitimate, albeit politically controversial measures and measures that are truly undemocratic by nature.’
Shavit Baruch’s opinion has been shared by others.
For Israel’s democracy to be considered illiberal, it would have to compare poorly with other democracies on major benchmarks such as freedom of the courts and the press and on civil liberties. And yet these are precisely the areas in which Israel continues to excel.
Freedom House’s 2019 Freedom in the World report gave Israel 13 out of 16 points for ‘political pluralism and participation’, a perfect score for ‘electoral process’, and 10 out of a possible 12 for ‘functioning of government’.
Freedoms for the press, religion, minorities, women and LGBTQ communities are broad, enshrined in law and embraced and protected by Israel’s national institutions. The country’s culture of freedom and open debate of sometimes radically opposing ideas is a hallmark of its political culture within and outside of the Knesset.
In a 2016 poll by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 68% of Palestinian respondents (73% in the West Bank and 59% in the Gaza Strip) expressed admiration for Israel’s democracy, describing it as either good or very good.
Given the healthy state of Israel’s democracy and civil liberties, to characterise the country as ‘illiberal’ or anything close to it is a pejorative exaggeration and a distortion.