Is Israel a ‘Good’ Democracy? By Amichai Magen


Amichai Magen is a Lecturer at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy, The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliya; a Visiting Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a member of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) Executive Committee.

Israel is a democracy. It has been so consistently, without a single episode of slippage into authoritarianism, at least since its modern national independence in 1948 and in some respects earlier – with the formation of the Yishuv’s egalitarian and accountable pre-state institutions. Israel is an electoral, parliamentary democracy in that its political authorities are sovereign; it maintains universal adult suffrage; recurring, free, competitive, and fair elections; a multitude (some would say over abundance) of political parties; and alternative sources of public information.

As a 64-year-old democracy Israel is in fact among the world’s oldest and most enduring. At the time of its founding there were fewer than two dozen democracies on the face of the earth; a distinct minority in a world then overwhelmingly composed of authoritarian regimes. Throughout its tumultuous history it has survived, indeed thrived, in a region singularly inhospitable to democracy. Throughout its war-torn national life it remained the only country in the Middle East and North Africa to continuously rank as “Free” on the respected Freedom House index of global political rights and civil liberties.

So Israel is a democracy, but is it a “good” one? When looked at critically, but soberly and fairly, how does Israel fare on measures of democratic quality? And is the future of Israeli democracy a secure one, or is it faltering – as some pundits worry or seem to hanker for?

To answer these questions it is first important to recall that even the highest quality liberal democracy – while undoubtedly a political and moral good – is no panacea. There is an understandable Western temptation to saddle the concept with too many expectations, and to imagine that by attaining liberal democracy a society will have resolved all its political, ethnic, religious, social, economic and cultural conflicts.

But that is too much to ask, of Israeli or any other democracy. As human systems of sociopolitical organisation, even the best democracies are flawed, demand constant maintenance, and are prone to periodic ups and downs.

Nor does democracy always guarantee an orderly, consensual, or stable society. Britain’s long tradition of the rule of law was no bulwark against the widespread rioting, looting and arson that saw parts of the country degenerate into chaos in August 2011. Many millions of European Union citizens view the multi-level governance system under which they live as suffering from a serious “democratic deficit”. And across the Atlantic, the legitimate expectations of Americans that their institutions of government deliver effective solutions to the country’s deep economic malaise have, for nearly a decade now, been hampered by political paralysis in Congress.

Still, democracies do vary in quality, and we can identify seven dimensions on which to evaluate the quality and durability of Israeli democracy: democratic participation, democratic competition, the rule of law, accountability, civil and political freedom, democratic responsiveness and democratic resilience.

Democratic Participation: Levels of democratic participation in Israel are generally high. Israelis can and do organise politically, assemble, protest, and lobby for their interests. Even groups on the far left, right, and those among the Arab and ultra orthodox minorities, generally seek to influence politics from within the democratic process, although this may be changing among fringe groups.

Voter turnout in national elections has ranged between 63 and 83 per cent – a robust indicator of high levels of democratic participation. Access to voting by secret ballot enhanced by advanced practices of voter registration and the use of voting forms in both official languages: Hebrew and Arabic.

At only 2 per cent, Israel’s threshold for a party to win parliamentary representation is among the world’s lowest. This ensures an unusually high degree of proportional representation in the 120-seat legislature (The Knesset) but also contributes to the formation of niche parties and unstable coalitions that hamper government stability and executive effectiveness.

Levels of participation for women and minorities in the national legislature are good, though not exemplary. Nearly 20 per cent of members of the current Knesset are women. In October 2002 Uzi Even made history by becoming the first openly gay Member of Knesset. Others have followed.

Just over 10 per cent are Arab Israelis. While the Arab population votes heavily for sectarian Arab parties, left-leaning and centrist Zionist parties also draw substantial support from the Arab community – Muslim and Christian – as well as from other ethnic and immigrant minority groups.

Democratic Competition: Perhaps the most striking structural change in Israeli politics over the last three decades has been the fragmentation of the previously dominant ideologically-based electoral blocs – that of social-democrat Labour and national-liberal Likud – and the proliferation of political parties giving a voice to an unusually broad range of social, ethnic and religious constituencies in this highly heterogeneous society. The trend has in some respects undermined the old statist elite solidarity, and weakened coalition government stability, but it has also made Israeli democracy more pluralistic and competitive than it had been in its early years.

To many Israelis it now seems strange that for the first half of the country’s national existence – from 1948 to 1977 – their polity was essentially ruled by a single, hegemonic party: Ben Gurion’s Mapai. The first real transition of power came only with what Israelis call the “Mahapach” (“transformation”) – Menachem Begin’s 1977 Likud victory over the Labour bloc led by Shimon Peres.

In contrast, a record 43 parties had registered with the Parties’ Registrar ahead of the 2009 national elections, compared to 31 for the previous elections in 2006. No fewer than 33 parties competed on election day, and the subsequent coalition government constructed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now includes six political parties.

Who is excluded from competing for political power in Israel? Parties or candidates that deny Israel’s right to exist as the national homeland of the Jewish People, reject democracy or incite racism. To date, the only political party actually barred from taking part in national elections was the far-right Jewish Kach party. In 2009, the Knesset’s central election committee voted to ban two Arab parties—Balad and the United Arab List (UAL)–Ta’al – from that year’s elections, citing their alleged support for the terrorist organisation Hamas. The Israeli Supreme Court quickly overturned the ban, and the parties were allowed to run. UAL-Ta’al won four seats, and Balad won three.

The Rule of Law: The quality of Israeli democracy suffers from a mixed, and in some respects deteriorating, rule of law conditions. On the one hand, personal security in Israel is high, with violent crime rates on par with, and in some areas lower, than those in western Europe. All Israeli citizens live under a system of laws that are publicly known, universal, non-retroactive and fairly and consistently applied by an independent judiciary that regularly rules against the government. Legal aid and the reasonable availability of social, family and Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) services also enhance access to justice. The Supreme Court hears direct petitions from Israeli citizens, as well as Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Historically, the state generally adheres to court rulings. Moreover, as a row of high-ranking officials serving prison sentences (including former-president, Moshe Katzav, finance minister, Avraham Hirschson, and health minister Shlomo Benizri) demonstrates, ultimately no one is above the law in Israel.

At the same time, corruption is an increasingly significant problem. Israel was ranked 36 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index, down six places compared with 2010, and eight places compared with 2005. Corruption scandals in recent years have implicated senior officials including a former-prime minister, a foreign minister, a finance minister, a former-mayor of the capital Jerusalem and the heads of the tax authority and police.

There is a burgeoning sense, moreover, that in certain geographic regions of this small country, and among certain fringe populations – notably in the radical left, Islamists, extreme right settler movements and certain ultra orthodox circles – the authority of the state is challenged, and the supremacy of Israeli law questioned. Unless these aberrations are contained, and actively rolled back, they are likely to pose a growing challenge to the cohesion and stability of Israeli democracy.

A broader, more diffuse challenge to the rule of law in Israel stems from the overstretching of the country’s institutions responsible for ensuring law and order. The number of police officers, state prosecutors, judges, environmental protection inspectors, correctional services personnel; all needs to be substantially increased to cater for the needs of an increasingly large, individualistic and heterogeneous society.

Accountability: We think of accountability as the obligation of elected political leaders to answer for their political decisions when asked by citizens or other constitutional bodies – courts, ombudsmen and professional regulatory agencies. Accountability can therefore be vertical or horizontal, and a high quality democracy displays solid levels of both.

The record of accountability in Israel is also mixed. Basic vertical accountability exists, in that Israeli citizens can, and do, hold their elected leaders to account in regular, free and competitive elections. Still, vertical accountability is weakened by an electoral system in which members of the Knesset are voted in and out of office from national lists, rather than local constituencies. The exigency of coalition government – where the sacking of a coalition partner may well mean the collapse of the coalition itself – also weakens effective vertical accountability.

Horizontal accountability is facilitated by a strong, independent Supreme Court, a vibrant, critical media and strong regulatory agencies – including a powerful Central Bank, Tax Authority and State Comptroller. At the same time, Israel’s culture of political accountability needs to improve. The Carmel Mountain fire tragedy, which claimed the lives of 44 people in December 2010, is a case in point. Despite revelations of serious planning and operational failures, as well as public outrage, the minister responsible, Eli Yishai, did not resign, nor did Prime Minister Netanyahu, whose government depended on Yishai’s Shas Party’s continued coalition participation, dismiss him.                             

Civil and Political Freedoms: As the Freedom House index documents, Israel is a free society that generally maintains high levels of political rights and civil liberties. Israel ranks “1”, the highest possible mark, on political rights, and “2” on civil liberties – a combined score which is in fact slightly higher than the EU member states average.

Although defined as a “Jewish and democratic state”, Israel respects freedom of religion. Christian, Muslim, and Baha’i communities exercise jurisdiction over their own members in personal status and family matters, including marriage, divorce and burial. Primary and secondary education is universal. Israel’s universities are open to all students based on merit, and have long been centres of social and political dissent.

Trade union activity is vibrant. While the percentage of workers governed by collective bargaining agreements has gradually decreased over the past decades, three-quarters of the workforce either belong to the “Histadrut”, the National Labour Federation, or are covered by its social programmes and collective bargaining agreements. Workers may join unions of their choice, and the right to strike is periodically exercised by the Histadrut or its affiliates.  

Freedoms of assembly and association are respected, and Israel hosts diverse and active civil society organisations. In the summer of 2011, nearly 500,000 Israelis took to the streets to demonstrate against the high cost of living and demanded greater equality in wealth distribution. Not a single demonstrator was arrested, nor were police officers assaulted or shops looted. In 2010, a bill requiring nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) to disclose all foreign donors passed through the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, though it had not yet been presented to the full chamber.

Women have achieved substantial parity at almost all levels of Israeli society, although wage discrepancies still exist, and violence against women remains a problem, notably among Ethiopian immigrants and in the Arab community where so-called ‘honour killings’ persist. The trafficking of women for prostitution has become an issue over the past decade. A 2006 law mandates prison terms of up to 20 years for perpetrators, and a combined government-NGO campaign has stepped up awareness and the provision of women’s shelters.

Although they have full political rights and have become more integrated into mainstream Israeli society over the past two decades, the roughly one million Arab citizens of Israel (about 19 per cent of the population) still do not enjoy equal education, housing and social services, when compared with the Jewish population. A handful of “unrecognised” Arab villages remain, primarily in the Negev region. Arab Israelis, except for the Druze minority, are not subject to the military draft, though they may volunteer. Those who do not serve are ineligible for the associated benefits, including scholarships and subsidised housing loans.

Israeli law grants equal guardianship and adoption rights to non-biological parents in same-sex partnerships. Israel is considered by far the most gay-friendly country in the Middle East, with one of the highest percentages of support for same-sex marriage in the world (61 per cent of Israelis support civil marriage for same-sex couples). Openly gay Israelis are permitted to serve in the armed forces.

Democratic Responsiveness: Governments are responsive to citizens when democratic processes compel them to make and implement policies that citizens want. Of all indicators of democratic quality, responsiveness is perhaps the most tricky to conceptualise and measure, not least because responsible government requires a complicated tradeoff between short-term popular preferences and long-term societal and national interests. Still, responsiveness can be said to be enhanced when civil society is informed and engaged, the political party system is coherent and stable and when a democratic state possesses strong material and administrative capacity to design and implement effective reforms.

Israel needs to do better on this parameter. Israeli governments generally do a poor job of addressing justified citizen grievances such as the lack of equality in military service, lingering barriers to market competitiveness and high tax and costs of living burdens on the middle class. At the same time, Israeli authorities are reasonably competent in providing core public goods – infrastructure, education, health, the environment and so forth – as well as in dealing with national emergencies. We see the latter, for example, in the construction of a security barrier in the West Bank in response to the wave of terrorist attacks in the Second Intifada; in the taking of defensive measures against Hamas rocket fire from Gaza – including military action and massive investment in anti-missile technology – and in the current construction of a barrier along the border with Egypt to prevent undocumented African migrants from crossing into Israel.

Democratic Resilience: Does the fact that a democracy emerges and survives under exceptionally inhospitable conditions count towards its democratic quality? I venture to say that it does. As Alexander Yakobson observed recently, Israeli democracy “developed under conditions and in an environment as favorable to liberalism as the Dead Sea is to fishing.” Maintaining a liberal democracy in homogenous, rich, and peaceful Scandinavia is admirable, but doing so in a place like Israel is nothing short of miraculous. Israel has absorbed millions of refugees – mostly from countries with weak or no democratic traditions. Yet it had socialised them into liberal democratic practices, not been undermined by authoritarian culture. Israel has overcome six major wars and almost incessant terrorist attacks, yet it has kept its society open and its respect for political freedoms and civil rights intact. In the aftermath of near annihilation in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Israelis exercised their right to “throw out the bums”, but they did not jettison their political system, or appeal to some charismatic “strong man” to save them. When the inflation rate hit 445 per cent in 1984, the military stayed in the barracks.

Israel is a relatively high quality democracy. It provides its citizens with a generally high degree of individual freedom, political equality, responsiveness to societal needs, and popular control over public policies and decision makers through the legitimate and lawful functioning of effective state institutions. Does Israeli democracy face significant challenges? Yes it does. Can it be improved and deepened? Certainly. Do Israelis need to strive daily to protect and strengthen their democracy in terms of procedures, content, and outcomes? Absolutely. But so does every other existing Western democracy. Eternal vigilance is, after all, the price of freedom.