Demotion of Israel’s democracy a powerful warning

Demotion of Israel’s democracy a powerful warning

Israel under Netanyahu is on the path of driving a wedge between itself and its friends across the globe (File/AFP)
Israel under Netanyahu is on the path of driving a wedge between itself and its friends across the globe (File/AFP)
Short Url

The findings of two recently published international reports are difficult to reconcile as far as Israel is concerned. One is the Economist Intelligence Unit’s “Democracy Index” 2024 report, in which Israel was demoted from the top-tier “liberal democracy” category to an “electoral democracy.” Not something to be proud of. On the other hand, to mark the International Day of Happiness — which, in case you have never heard of it, is celebrated annually on March 20 — the UN released its “World Happiness Report” and Israel was ranked fifth, sandwiched between several Nordic countries, led, as in the previous seven years, by Finland.

The Scandinavians always lead the way when it comes to national happiness. In my naivete, I was sure that, in the case of Israel, the survey must have been conducted before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. But I was wrong. For obvious reasons, I am not suggesting a direct correlation between the two reports, but since the decline of Israeli democracy has been a long, gradual and relentless development — and has had more impetus since the sixth Netanyahu government was formed just over a year ago — one wonders from where this burst of happiness could possibly stem from.

However, putting aside for a moment the origins of Israelis’ happiness, which should be investigated separately, the confirmation of the steady deterioration of Israel’s democratic system should be a source of worry for Israel’s friends and allies abroad, to those who live under its occupation in the West Bank and Gaza and, above all, its own citizens. Israel has fallen out of the liberal democracy category for the first time in more than 50 years, due largely to the fact that at the heart of the current coalition government are elected politicians who not only abuse the democratic system, but frankly despise the very creed of this system of liberal-democratic governance.

To be sure, the anti-democracy trend is rooted in social-political developments that took place long before the advent of the present far-right government led by a defendant in a corruption trial. Specifically, the report asserts that Israel lost its long-time status as a liberal democracy last year to what is a lesser model of democracy, an electoral one, due “to substantial declines in the indicators measuring the transparency and predictability of the law, and government attacks on the judiciary.”

Israel has fallen out of the liberal democracy category for the first time in more than 50 years

Yossi Mekelberg

It lays the responsibility for that fairly and squarely on the coalition government’s attacks on the judiciary and its legitimization and normalization of corruption. In addition, the report refers to the relations with the Palestinians and rightly asserts that the harsh practices of the occupation are not fitting for a liberal democracy.

From the very outset, as early as its Declaration of Independence, Israel has set itself the stiff challenge of becoming both Jewish and democratic. Reconciling these two elements has always been an extremely difficult but not impossible task. After all, Israel is the home of a big non-Jewish minority who are loyal citizens, but how can they identify with the Jewish character of the country, especially when it institutionally discriminates against them? And this is without even considering the question of what does a “Jewish state” mean in the first place?

Remaining a liberal democracy has proved to be a difficult task and some would say impossible since the war of 1967, which resulted in the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the daily control of the lives of millions of Palestinians against their will, while depriving them of the most basic rights.

Israel under the “leadership” of Benjamin Netanyahu is on the path of driving a wedge between itself and its friends across the globe — and even more emphatically with the liberal-democratic world. This is not a coincidence, but rather a deliberate direction in which some within Israeli society and politics would like the country to head, either for ideological reasons or for their private vested interests; sometimes for both.

Israel under Netanyahu is on the path of driving a wedge between itself and its friends across the globe

Yossi Mekelberg

To begin with, many ultra-Orthodox Jews have long opposed the Zionist idea since they perceive it to be a secular ideology set against the basic tenets of Judaism. They have always aspired to a state ruled by Jewish jurisprudence, the “Halacha,” not a liberal democracy. Add to that the far-right, Zionist, religious-messianic settler movement, which sees the democratic system, especially its independent judiciary, as a hurdle between them and their goals of marginalizing the Palestinians in Israel and annexing the West Bank, and you get a picture of the rapid disappearance of Israel as a liberal democracy.

Moreover, over the years, the political system has become increasingly corrupt. Netanyahu epitomizes this above any other politician, albeit he is far from alone in this. His hedonism has already landed him in court on corruption charges. And to escape justice he is leading a cynical assault on the independence of the judiciary, while legitimizing convicted criminals, some of whom are also ultranationalists, by allowing them to serve in his government. He has corrupted and distorted the entire political system. It will take years, and considerably more than one term, of a diametrically opposite kind of leadership to heal the wounds inflicted on the body of democracy by Netanyahu governments over the years.

Electoral democracy is hardly a democracy if the principles of the separation of powers and checks and balances are not kept to. That can only lead to authoritarianism and deeply ingrained corruption, which is the direction in which Netanyahu is taking Israel. Had it not been for the protest movement throughout last year, Israel would have been way further down this dangerous path by now. Electoral democracy allows free and (almost) fair elections but uses the government machine to distort them and, when elections are won, those elected attempt to use their full term to govern without transparency and without accountability in the hope of perpetuating their time in power.

Israel cannot afford to be heading in this direction and the Economist Intelligence Unit report is a powerful warning to Israelis. Much of the support their country has enjoyed from the democratic world, despite its many transgressions from what is expected of a liberal democracy, was due to its being perceived as one. However, between the assault on the independence of the judiciary and the way that Israel is conducting the war in Gaza, this perception is looking more and more outdated — and this is happening in front of a watching world.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Program at international affairs think tank Chatham House. X: @YMekelberg
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view