Introduction: Is Israel becoming less democratic? By Lorna Fitzsimons


Lorna Fitzsimons is the CEO of the Britain Israel Communications & Research Centre.

BICOM is pleased to present the perspectives of four experts – Alexander Yakobson, Amichai Magen, Nadav Eyal and Michael Walzer – on the current state and future prospects for Israel’s democracy.

Alexander Yakobson, associate professor of ancient history in the Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, presents a brilliant historical overview of the development of Israel’s democracy. He claims that whilst ‘no modern free society came into being and was shaped under conditions as adverse to liberal democracy as Israel’s,’ nonetheless, over time the country has become ‘more – rather than less, as is often claimed – of a liberal democracy.’

Amichai Magen, a lecturer at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Centre (IDC) Herzliya, offers a clear-sighted overview of the quality and durability of Israeli democracy today, as measured according to democratic participation, democratic competition, the rule of law, accountability, civil and political freedom, democratic responsiveness and democratic resilience.

The commentator Nadav Eyal is concerned about what he sees as a crisis in Israel’s democracy, but argues that when looking at the efforts of some on the Israeli right to curb democratic freedoms, we are looking at ‘the convulsive actions of a dead idea’ that is ‘not winning, it is withering.’

Finally, we interview the political theorist Michael Walzer. Co-editor of Dissent since 1980 and a member of the faculty at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, Walzer is worried about what he sees as illiberal challenges to Israel’s democracy, yet is also hopeful that the society possesses multiple sources of democratic renewal. A defender of the Zionist project, Walzer seeks to restore some political realism to the debate: ‘Unless you want to abolish the nation-state, you have to live with majorities and minorities,’ he argues, whilst ‘working hard to ensure that political equality and, I would add, economic equality are features of the society.’

The views expressed by the four contributors are those of the authors alone, and not of BICOM.


Permanent vigilance about the health of our democracies is the only guarantee of their survival. Across the political spectrum leading Israeli politicians and commentators are expressing concern at controversial Knesset legislation widely seen as illiberal or anti-democratic.

On the right, the leading Likud figure Benny Begin, son of the former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, is astonished at colleagues who have ‘forgotten the basic rules of democracy’. In the centre, Tzipi Livni is aghast at bills that push the country ‘towards dictatorship.’ And on the left, Haaretz columnist Ari Shavik fears the country’s very survival is being put in jeopardy by a ‘vile reactionary spirit rising from the parliament.’

Short-sighted and opportunistic politicians, he believes, are playing to their base inside the country upon which their Knesset seats depend, and alienating Israel’s base outside the country – the democratic Westerners upon which the state’s survival depends.

The problem is not that the alarm bells are being rung – a healthy democracy always needs its citizens to be watchful. The problem is that a notion is spreading in the West that Israel is fast becoming an illiberal ethno-democracy – fear-driven, bigoted, and small minded. And that just is not true. And how we debate the state of Israel’s democratic future casts a light on how we view our own, as well as being vital to Israel’s international standing.

We need to see the bigger picture. The prospects for Israeli democracy look much better once we place the current crop of controversial Knesset proposals into three contexts – the long-term historical development of democracy in Israel, the short-term political pressures driving some of the controversial pieces of legislation, and the larger debate raging across academia and among politicians of all stripes about the global crisis of representative democracy.

Historical context. ‘If ever it comes to awarding a Nobel prize for democratic achievement in recent decades’ says the Hebrew University historian Alexander Yakobson, writing in Justice: the journal of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, it should be shared by India and Israel. The latter, he points out, faced conditions ‘about as favourable to liberal democracy as the Dead Sea is to fishing.’

Waves of immigrants, mostly from countries without a democratic culture, built a vibrant democracy while fighting a series of Arab-Israeli wars, maintaining a near-permanent state of emergency, and integrating a sizeable national minority that identified with the ‘enemy.’

And miraculously, Israel has become more of a liberal democracy over time (in a region that has seen many countries travel in the opposite direction). The late 1970s were more liberal that the early 1960s, and – despite dire warnings that Israeli democracy would not survive Begin’s Likud – Israel is today more of a liberal democracy than it had been in the late 1970s. (Begin, it turned out, was a liberal parliamentarian who did much to boost the Israeli judiciary.)

Today, the Knesset is stronger, political parties more in the hands of their members, local government more autonomous, the judiciary stronger (despite noise in the Knesset), the High Court more willing to overrule the government, media scrutiny more intense (despite threats to curb its power), the culture less deferential, and the State Comptroller is more mighty. And as we saw in the summer, Israeli civil society is so robust it can re-shape the country’s economic and social policies through protests characterised by a constructive spirit and creative imagination that protests here in the West, so often scarred by confrontation and violence, can only dream of emulating.

Political context. Writing in Ma’ariv, Nadav Eyal argued that the laws are often signs of weakness not strength. The left may have suffered electoral reversal, Eyal argues, but it is their two-state programme, not the old right’s dream of a Greater Israel that is dominant politically. The sponsors of the controversial bills, Eyal claims, do not have a coherent project to challenge Israel’s democratic institutions but they do have an eye on the next election and on stroking their political base. They are more about short-term positioning than anything else. These are the death-throes of the old not the birth-pangs of anything new – ‘the convulsive actions of a dead idea’ produced by ‘a political camp seeking a direction’ and which amount to ‘parliamentary running amok… terrible ideas and bad laws and a difficult spirit of division.’

The International context. Shock! Horror! Israelis can be parochial (as can we all). Look around. Yes, criticise this or that illiberal bill, but spare a thought for what Israel has not yet sunk to. Lucas Papademos now runs Greece. He is a former vice-president of the European Central Bank and is unelected. The elected Greek premier George Papandreou was gone four days after he proposed giving the people a vote on the cuts package the EU demanded. As for Italy, a former European Commissioner, Mario Monti, is now in charge, and he did not submit himself to the ballot box either. Nor did his cabinet, not one of whom has a mandate from the voters.

If Israeli commentators would lift their eyes they would see that we ‘democratic westerners’ have been having our own anguished debates about ‘the state we’re in.’ Our academics talk endlessly of the ‘hollowing out’ of representative democracy, arguing that power has moved up to global institutions, out to corporations, and down to individual consumers. Levels of trust and confidence in the political system have plummeted. Our politicians bemoan the decline in voter-turnout and in political participation, and wonder what will replace the mass party. The 2006 Power Inquiry into the state of British democracy, chaired by the QC Baroness Helena Kennedy, concluded that ‘the main political parties are widely held in contempt’ and are ‘seen as offering no real choice to voters.’ And that was before the parliamentary expenses scandal!

Israel is not alone in wrestling with the balance between freedom and security (the UK government proposal to hold terror suspects for 90 days without trial led to a debate about a ‘creeping authoritarian state’), or the competing claims of judicial activism and the legislators popular mandate (one major party, the Conservatives, are pledged to repeal the Human Rights Act in part because it allows judges too much power relative to the government of the day), or the balance between press freedom and press responsibility – after some newspapers were caught hacking into phones, a public inquiry has been set up in the UK and some politicians favour setting up a register from which journalists could be removed for gross misconduct. The point is not whether any of these proposals are right or wrong. The point is that the dilemmas are universal and the controversies they produce can be signs of rude democratic health.

‘The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, not eternal panic-mongering’ writes Alex Yakobson. Wise words.

An earlier version of this introduction appeared at The Huffington Post.